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South Korea

South Korean singer's death cast in mystery

Was it a homicide? His fans try to puzzle out shocking revelations

This screen grab from the "Suicide Made" trailer shows the late crooner Kim Kwang-seok.

SEOUL -- Two decades on and the death of a popular South Korean folk singer is back under scrutiny, put there by a documentary hinting at the possibility that the singer might not have committed suicide as long thought.

In January 1996, the body of Kim Kwang-seok was found hanging at the singer's home. Police concluded that Kim, suffering from depression, had killed himself. Their finding was based largely on his widow's testimony. He was 31.

But the documentary "Suicide Made" paints a picture of a homicide. Furthermore, Lee Sang-ho, the film's director, recently filed a complaint seeking that the investigation into the 2007 death of the artist's daughter be reopened.

Kim was a household name. He had numerous hits, many of which still get covered by artists today. His song "A Letter from a Private" was featured in "JSA," a 2000 blockbuster movie directed by Park Chan-wook.

Now another film has sowed confusion 21 years after Kim's death.

As a journalist at MBC, one of South Korea's major telecasters, Lee had been involved in exploring the case of the singer's death two decades ago. Lee could not let go of his skepticism over the widow's statements, which he found to be inconsistent with the circumstances. Even after police determined Kim's death to be a suicide, the reporter continued asking questions.

He discovered that Kim and his wife were not getting along and that some of the singer's relatives wondered if foul play might have been involved.

Quiet cremation

Lee thought he had uncovered enough information to air a documentary looking into the mysterious death. But MBC declined to produce the program, largely because the police had already closed the case and Lee lacked definitive evidence to support his theory.

After he left MBC, Lee decided to make the documentary on his own, using information he had collected over a 20-year span. The story mostly focuses on the artist's final days.

"Suicide Made" director Lee Sang-ho speaks to reporters outside the Central District Prosecutors' Office in Seoul on Sept. 21.

With the filmmaker's allegations already stirring up the nation, new information surfaced last month about another death, 10 years ago, that had gone unreported.

The secret death was that of Kim's 17-year-old daughter.

This news came on Sept. 20. According to the much-belated reports, the late singer's widow in 2007 found their only daughter unconscious at home. The mother took the teen to a nearby hospital, where the girl was pronounced dead. Police called the death accidental, based on an autopsy that said the girl had died from acute pneumonia. 

Perhaps only the widow knows why she kept her daughter's death a secret, but both were involved in a court case with the singer's father. Each party was fighting for ownership of the singer's intellectual property.

In 2008, the case concluded, with the daughter and mother gaining the rights to Kim's music. It had been a protracted legal battle against the singer's father and extended family. But now the family says it settled the case so the daughter would gain the continuing revenue stream from her father's body of work. They also say they only learned the daughter had died when the rest of South Korea did last month.

One reason the daughter's death remained shrouded in secrecy was that there was never any funeral for her. Her body was cremated.

Captivated nation

Another reason, according to reports from last month, was that the singer's widow had been telling those close to her that the daughter was living well in the U.S.

When news of the secret death hit last month, the name of Kim's widow was trending in South Korean cyberspace -- and more people were going to see Lee's documentary.

"Suicide Made" has been playing at a limited number of theaters. When a Nikkei reporter dropped by a Seoul cinema for a 10 p.m. screening -- the last one of the day -- the place was almost full. The audience sighed in astonishment upon hearing a recorded phone conversation between the widow and her father-in-law. The conversation was much more of a bitter row; it echoed through the theater.

On Sept. 21, Lee held a news conference at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office to announce he had filed a complaint seeking that police at least reopen the investigation into the teenager's death. He also requested that Kim's widow not be allowed to leave the country. In addition, Lee wants the investigation into Kim's death reopened, although the case, assuming it was a homicide, has out-lived the statute of limitations.

Lee is now working with lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea to draft legislation that would allow the statute of limitations to be extended if new information is uncovered. The effort, however, will be an uphill battle for Lee.

On Sept. 22, prosecutors did reopen the investigation into the death of the daughter. They also barred the girl's mother from leaving the country.

The mother told the media she has nothing to hide, that she is prepared to answer prosecutors' questions. But later in the month she was interviewed by a cable TV reporter, and her words seemed to do more to obscure than illuminate. The mother also repeatedly insisted that her memory is foggy on the events of a decade ago.

It is too soon to reconcile the new information with the official account of Kim's death all those years ago. Nevertheless, the movie and last month's bombshell have captivated a nation, much like the singer himself used to do through his sentimental music.

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