Mystery Deepens Over Seo Tai-ji's Secret Marriage to Lee Ji-ah

The actress Lee Ji-ah is suing music legend Seo Tai-ji for W500 million in alimony and a W5 billion share of his assets (US$1=W1,080). According to her lawsuit, the two secretly married in the U.S. and divorced later on. Lee claims they divorced in 2009, but Seo says they parted ways back in 2006.

The timing of the separation is at the center of controversy, since a person can claim for alimony up to three years after divorce. The reasons for the divorce and lawsuit remain unclear.

The first pre-trial hearing was held on March 14 and another is scheduled for May 23. The formal trial has yet to begin, so Seo and Lee have not appeared in court yet. Lee has hired four lawyers from a major law firm, while Seo has hired three to defend him.

Seo Tai-ji (left) and Lee Ji-ah Seo Tai-ji (left) and Lee Ji-ah

Around midnight on Thursday, Lee's management agency KeyEast issued a press release confirming the lawsuit. In the press release, Lee said that she wanted to end her relation with Seo quietly, but due to disagreement she had to file a lawsuit before the period to claim for alimony expires. Lee explained she left for the U.S. to study in 1993 and met Seo through an acquaintance at a concert in Los Angeles the same year. They kept in touch and developed a long-distance relationship though letters and phones as Lee stayed in the U.S. and Seo went back to Korea and finally became lovers, it said.

Seo went to the U.S. after retiring from show business in early 1996, and the two got married there without inviting anyone to the wedding in 1997 and lived in the States, moving to Atlanta and then Arizona. Lee, however, denies rumors that she and Seo have children.

The agency said Seo returned to Korea for his comeback as a singer in June 2006, and Lee, who stayed behind in the U.S., filed for divorce the same year, which became effective in 2009. It said the two separated because Seo's occupation led to an unusual lifestyle and irreconcilable differences. Lee said she had had to keep her private life secret because her husband was a famous figure here.

The news broke on Thursday afternoon and was featured on the front pages of major Internet portals and news websites, with tens of thousands of netizens posting comments and spreading rumors.

Seo (39), who commands a huge base of loyal fans and is often referred to as the "president of culture," debuted in 1992 as the leader of the group Seo Tai-ji & Boys and became a music icon during the 1990s. The three-member group, which also included Lee Ju-no and Yang Hyun-suk, captivated young Koreans with music that blended hip-hop and rock and contained messages of social awareness.

Seo, whose real name is Jeong Hyun-chul, went solo in 2000 and has kept his personal life under close wraps.

A photo taken by a tourist in Paris in January shows Lee Ji-ah and Jung Woo-sung on a date. /Courtesy of Sports Kahn A photo taken by a tourist in Paris in January shows Lee Ji-ah and Jung Woo-sung on a date. /Courtesy of Sports Kahn

Lee was equally secretive about her private life. There are rumors that her real name is Kim Sang-eun, but she changed it to Kim Ji-ah just before she debuted as an actress and again to Lee Ji-ah. In various interviews, she claimed she was born on Feb. 2, 1981 and left for the U.S. when she was in sixth grade, living there for around 10 years. She also claims to have majored in graphic design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but none of these claims have been verified.

She caught the eye of top star Bae Yong-joon, who is a major shareholder of talent management agency KeyEast, and made her show business debut in an ad Bae appeared in back in 2004. She rose to stardom co-starring with Bae in the 2007 MBC drama "Taewangsasingi (The Four Guardian Gods of the King)" and recently starred in the SBS drama "Athena: Goddess of War." She made headlines with a real-life romance with her co-star Jung Woo-sung.

The two admitted their relationship after a tourist photographed them on a date in Paris in January this year. Jung's management agency on Thursday quoted him as saying, "I knew nothing about Lee's marriage and divorce suit. I cannot believe it and I hope that it isn't true."

Seo's management agency, Seo Tai-ji Company, said it was unaware of the news, adding the singer is overseas at the moment working on an album and cannot be reached.

englishnews@chosun.com / Apr. 22, 2011 13:11 KST