[Editorial] Yoon must explain, apologize for his appointment of Lee Jong-sup as ambassador

Posted on : 2024-04-01 16:38 KST Modified on : 2024-04-01 16:38 KST
The entire fiasco is Yoon’s own doing — it’s not going to blow over now that Lee’s resigned
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) of South Korea speaks to Lee Jong-sup, then the minister of national defense, while observing joint drills in June 2023. (pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) of South Korea speaks to Lee Jong-sup, then the minister of national defense, while observing joint drills in June 2023. (pool photo)

Former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, who was appointed to be the South Korean ambassador to Australia while embroiled in a corruption investigation, officially resigned as ambassador on Friday. Despite Lee’s attempts to evade the investigation into him, he resigned just 25 days into his appointment.

Lee announced his resignation on Friday through his lawyer. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported the resignation to President Yoon Suk-yeol, who appointed Lee, and revealed that the president had accepted Lee’s resignation. 

The Yoon administration dismissed rumors of Lee’s resignation up until only one day prior to it coming to pass. The sudden change in demeanor is likely based on anxiety regarding the upcoming general election. Lee had returned from Australia soon after his arrival there, officially declaring that he returned to South Korea to attend an ad hoc diplomatic meeting. But the more likely scenario is that when the public controversy didn’t calm down, the Yoon administration cut its losses.

The People Power Party, as if waiting for the signal, suddenly sprang out into public, babbling about “the will of the people.” Yet the will of the people had already been violated long before then, when a public official accused of meddling in the investigation of the death of a marine corporal was named to be the country’s ambassador in Australia. It was a blatant slap in the face to standard procedure and common sense. 

The Yoon administration claimed the appointment was based on “defense cooperation,” but it did not adequately explain why the new ambassador had to be a former defense minister — especially one tangled up in a corruption investigation. 

The Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO) placed an exit ban on Lee, but the Justice Ministry swiftly removed it, allowing Lee to slip out of the country after a mere four hours of questioning. As if the entire point of his appointment was to get him out of the country. Lee left in such a rush that he only had photocopies of the credentials that he was meant to submit to Australian authorities.

Lee is no ordinary suspect. When Marine Corps investigators were looking into the death of a corporal, surnamed Chae, who was killed during a flood rescue operation, they relayed the relevant files and records to the police. Lee then ordered that those files and records be recalled. He was charged by the CIO with tampering with an official investigation by abusing his authority. He essentially reversed a decision that he personally approved. It was then revealed that Lee received a phone call from the presidential office on a landline before he ordered the recall. Someone from the presidential office ordered the minister of national defense to reverse a decision. Who has the authority to do that? The entire sequence of events leading up to Lee’s appointment as ambassador is suspect.  

Yet Yoon has only accepted Lee’s resignation. The president has not explained any of the suspicious events leading up to Lee’s resignation. The issue is a hot potato, and the public is suspicious. Does he think silence will make the problem go away? What is he going to tell Australia, whose new ambassador has resigned just 25 days into his term? It’s surely going to go down as an unprecedented diplomatic faux pas. Not to mention a “2+2” meeting of each country’s respective defense ministers and foreign ministers is scheduled for May. What’s to become of that?

The entire fiasco is Yoon's own doing. This is not going to blow over after Lee’s resignation. The president needs to explain the entire process behind Lee’s appointment and the specific reasons for his resignation to the people. It’s the least he could do as the country’s highest elected official.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles