By Choi Kyong-ae
SEOUL, April 8 (Yonhap) -- Panama's government is willing to cooperate with any country investigating or planning to inquire into suspected tax evaders mentioned in millions of documents recently leaked by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, the Latin American country's top diplomat in Seoul said Friday.
"We will be ready to vigorously collaborate if the Korean government requires any assistance in its investigation for tax evasion. In a matter of illegal activity, we will give all information to any investigation by any government," Panamanian Ambassador to South Korea Ruben Arosemena said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency.
Earlier this week 11.5 million documents, dubbed the "Panama Papers," were leaked that contained information on the law firm's clients from around the globe and their various controversial acts such as money laundering and tax evasion, through setting up more than 214,000 paper companies in tax havens.
The clients of the Panamanian company reportedly included 195 people whose residential addresses are in South Korea. Among the names was Roh Jae-heon, the eldest son of former President Roh Tae-woo, who was found to have established three paper companies in the British Virgin Islands in May 2012.
Seoul's financial watchdog said on Tuesday it will consider opening an investigation into the 195 South Koreans suspected of attempting to avoid taxes by setting up paper companies in offshore tax havens in violation of foreign-exchange laws.
Arosemena said that the Panamanian government began its investigation into Mossack Fonseca right after the revelation of the leaked documents, while noting that it will take more than a year before the results of the probe emerge.
"They (Mossack Fonseca) should defend themselves in the probe. Any penalties or fines against the company will depend on how severe the case is," he said in the interview held in English.
The ambassador first asked for the interview with Yonhap, which is seen as an apparent effort by the Panamanian government to repair its national image in connection with the Panama Papers.
Panama itself is often cited as a tax haven along with the Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and the Marshall Islands.
In this regard, the ambassador stressed that his country has made efforts to do away with the infamous title of "paradise for money-laundering."
He went on to say that Panama has executed packages of reforms in past years to upgrade its system to international standards and make it transparent.
In a major reform, Panama passed the "Know your client" law in 2011. Under the amendment, local legal and financial services providers are required to more thoroughly select their clients to avoid business deals with those with illegal purposes.
"Now in Panama with the new amendment, the lawyers have responsibility to know their clients," he said.
In related efforts, Panama has signed 16 bilateral agreements to avoid double taxation and nine pacts to exchange tax information. Panama has inked a deal with Korea to share tax information in the event that any judicial process unfolds, the embassy said.
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