updated 6/13/2005 6:22:32 PM ET 2005-06-13T22:22:32

One of South Korea's most-wanted fugitives, the former chairman of collapsed conglomerate Daewoo Group, returned home early Tuesday and was immediately arrested.

Kim Woo-choong, who fled the country in 1999, is accused of having falsified Daewoo's accounts to draw billions of dollars in illegal bank loans before diverting them overseas. He has come to epitomize the excesses of the country's "chaebol" — the privately controlled conglomerates whose unbridled expansion on borrowed money helped undermine the economy in the 1990s.

The 69-year-old Kim arrived at Incheon International Airport near Seoul from Vietnam, and was immediately surrounded by dozens of prosecution and security officials who jostled with journalists.

"I will take whatever responsibility I am supposed to take over the Daewoo Group incident. I feel deeply sorry," Kim said.

The Supreme Prosecutor's Office has accused Kim of taking $20 billion out of the country. Police believe Kim had been traveling in Europe since leaving South Korea, and that he acquired French citizenship.

The rise and fall of Kim, who started as a textile salesman in 1967, personified South Korea's economic growth of the 1970s. The country's former military governments provided cheap loans and tax benefits to nurture Daewoo and a handful of other family-run businesses into conglomerates that mass-produced for export markets.

Utilizing such ties, Kim built his empire largely by taking over troubled companies. At its peak, the conglomerate had interests in automaking, shipbuilding, textiles, electronics and other goods.

The collapse of Daewoo and other conglomerates during the Asian crisis forced South Korea to bail out its economy with the help of the International Monetary Fund — a humiliating experience for a country that prided itself on having risen to the top tier of industrialized economies.

South Korea, which received a $58 billion bailout package from the IMF, was one of the first countries to overcome the regional crisis, which erupted in July 1997 after Thailand devalued its currency.

Parts of Daewoo were sold off after the collapse. Detroit-based General Motors Corp. acquired a majority stake in the now-defunct Daewoo Motor, creating GM Daewoo in 2002.

Kim "must truthfully testify about the entire story of the process in which Daewoo, which once symbolized Korea's economic miracle, collapsed in the foreign currency crisis," the Korea Economic Daily said in an editorial Monday. "The experience of failed corporations, as a negative example, may prove to be as precious a lesson as that of a successful one."

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