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[Editorial] Ambassador to Australia

Lee should begin service after he is cleared of charges

March 19, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

Lee Jong-sup, a former defense minister who is under investigation over allegations that he meddled with an internal probe into the death of a young Marine last year, began serving as South Korea’s ambassador to Australia last week.

In July 2023, Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun was found dead after being swept away by a torrent in a stream in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, during a search mission for victims of heavy rain. The Marines were ordered to go into the overflowing stream without life vests or ropes.

The Marine Corps launched a probe, led by Col. Park Jung-hoon, into who was responsible for the operation, and reported the results accusing eight people including the commander of the 1st Marine Division of manslaughter by occupational negligence to then-Defense Minister Lee. Lee signed off the report on July 30, but the next day ordered through the Marine Corps deputy commander to defer the transfer of the case to the police, citing a need for legal review.

Park, who later said it wasn’t clearly conveyed to him as the minister’s order, went ahead and transferred the case to the Gyeongbuk Provincial Police as per the revised Military Criminal Act. Park said in media interviews that Marine Corps commander Kim Kye-hwan read to him a text message from Vice Defense Minister Shin Beom-cheol instructing the investigation team to delete the suspicions and include only the facts in the report.

The ministry dismissed Park from office, and booked him on charges of insubordination and defamation. The ministry took back the case files from the police, revised the report to accuse only two battalion commanders, and transferred the case to the police. The Democratic Party of Korea filed a complaint against Lee with the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials in September for allegedly exerting improper influence in the probe.

Lee told the National Assembly that no one, including himself, instructed the removal of certain individuals from the list of suspects of manslaughter by occupational negligence. The ministry’s prosecutors’ office indicted Park on charges of insubordination and defamation in October.

On March 4, the Foreign Ministry announced that Lee, who resigned as defense minister in October, had been named as the new ambassador to Australia. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s office said that Lee helped expand ties with Australia while serving as defense minister. Media reports on March 6 revealed that the CIO had banned Lee from exiting the country in January. The next day, Lee went to the CIO, which had not summoned him for questioning since it received the complaint six months before, and was questioned for four hours. The Justice Ministry lifted the travel ban on Lee on March 8, and Lee flew to Australia. He said he would fly back to be interrogated whenever the CIO summons him.

Opposition parties slammed Lee’s nomination as ambassador, and filed a complaint against President Yoon, as well as the foreign and justice ministers. All of the 156 Democratic Party legislators submitted a bill to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Lee.

The ruling People Power Party has accused the CIO of illegally leaking information related to the probe to selected media, and claimed that the Democratic Party was blowing up the issue ahead of the general elections on April 10.

The rival parties' claims aside, the case of Chae unveiled suspicions of unlawful interference with an internal probe, and the lack of political skill or will on the part of key presidential aides.

Australia is an important strategic partner. It is a member of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance also comprising Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, which Korea is seeking to join. Sending someone under investigation, even if no interrogation took place for six months, opens room for unnecessary concerns in Canberra and Seoul, and possible disruptions in the ambassador’s work, should he be frequently summoned for questioning at home.

The ruling party’s leader Han Dong-hoon said the CIO should immediately summon Lee, and Lee should return to Korea. Han is right on that.

A number of instances including the new ambassador have left Koreans questioning what the presidential aides are thinking or doing when their job is to coach and advise the president, a former prosecutor, on how to deal with complex political situations. They should think about what is best for the nation, and speak up to the president, instead of robotically following orders.