South Korea’s ambassador to Australia offers to resign after less than a month in the job

South Korea’s ambassador to Australia offers to resign after less than a month in the job
  • PublishedMarch 29, 2024

South Korea’s new ambassador to Australia has offered his resignation after less than a month in the job, as he faces a corruption probe at home.

On March 4, Lee Jong-sup was named by President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative administration to replace Kim Wan-joong in Canberra.

The former defence minister then flew to Australia on March 12 to take up the position as top envoy after South Korea’s justice ministry lifted a travel ban on him to allow him to leave.

But he was forced home 10 days later amid an investigation by the country’s Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials over allegations he interfered with a probe into the drowning of a South Korean soldier.

The anti-corruption office said it had not given permission for Mr Lee to leave the country.

Opposition MPs accused the government of sending Mr Lee to Australia to shield him from facing justice.

The appointment proved highly controversial and politically poisonous ahead of parliamentary elections in April, and members of South Korea’s diaspora in Australia protested the decision outside of Parliament House.

A woman wearing glasses holds up a sign while surrounded by protesters holding up signs calling to investigate Lee Jong-sup
South Korean protesters demonstrated against Lee Jong-sup’s appointment in front of Parliament House.(Supplied: Australia Candlelight Action)

Mr Yoon’s political party is desperate to win seats and claim a majority.

John Lee, the editor of the online publication, Korea Pro, said the saga was an “embarrassment” to the government and the president.

“The main opposition Democratic Party claimed that appointing Mr Lee as ambassador to Australia was tantamount to helping a suspected criminal avoid investigation and potential prosecution,” he said.

“This is a bad look, especially considering the fact that President Yoon Suk-yeol is a former prosecutor.”

The accusations against Lee Jong-sup

In July last year, a South Korean marine, Lance Corporal Chae Su-geun, was swept away by strong river currents during a search and rescue operation.

It was revealed he had not been equipped with a life jacket.

Military investigator, Colonel Park Jung-hun, recommended eight officers be charged with “professional negligence leading to manslaughter”.

It’s alleged Mr Lee pressured authorities to hold off from revealing the findings.

After the report was handed over to police, Colonel Park was charged with insubordination.

The union that represents reserve marines told the ABC the ambassador’s offer to resign was a “relief”.

“We were all extremely outraged,” said Marine Corps Reserve National Association president Jung Won Chul.

“Why did they send out such an individual to Australia?

“His appointment was not only unsuitable for the investigation into the Chae Su-geun case but also detrimental to the relationship between the two countries. It was a significant diplomatic misstep.

“There was a worry that the major witness fleeing might hinder the investigation and trial proceedings.”

Upon his return to South Korea, Mr Lee told reporters he was back to attend a meeting with diplomatic chiefs but would also make himself available for questioning.

The ABC can confirm the former defence minister had not presented his credentials to Australia’s governor-general.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed Mr Lee’s appointment at the time.


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