Park postpones decision on firing prime minister
President Park Geun-hye will decide the fate of her beleaguered prime minister after she returns from an overseas trip later this month, the head of the ruling party said Thursday.
Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo has been implicated in a snowballing scandal over payoffs by a construction tycoon-turned-politician who committed suicide last week.
Immediately before she left on a 12-day Latin America trip, Park asked Kim Moo-sung, chairman of the Saenuri Party, to meet with her at the Blue House for an urgent meeting. After the 45-minute meeting, Kim said the president was willing to consider every measure including an independent counsel investigation to lay bare the truth behind the scandal, which has implicated many members of her inner circle.
“President Park said she wanted to listen to the ruling party chairman’s opinions on various pressing issues before she leaves the country,” Kim said at a press conference. “I told her the various opinions that have poured in from within and outside the party without any omissions or additions.
“The president said she was well-briefed and will make a decision [about the fate of Lee] after she returns from the trip,” Kim said. “She also said if appointing an independent counsel will help uncover the truth, there is no reason to avoid it.”
Ever since Lee was accused of receiving money from Sung Wan-jong, the late chairman of Keangnam Enterprises, pressure has come from both sides of the political aisle for him to step down and submit to an investigation. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is mulling a motion for his dismissal. Many in the ruling party also think Lee has become a political liability for the president.
Park left for Columbia, the first destination on her Latin America trip, immediately after the meeting with Kim at the Blue House. She is scheduled to return to Korea on April 27.
“Kim told Park that the prime minister’s resignation is unavoidable, because the party has limits in protecting him taking into account the deteriorating public opinion,” a senior member of the ruling party told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Park agreed that she will accept the recommendation of the party for Kim’s resignation if the situation doesn’t change by her return.”
According to the source, Park hinted to Kim that there is still the possibility that Lee can prove himself innocent while she is abroad.
Another associate of Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo that it is important to read between the lines in Kim’s media conference. “We couldn’t be any harsher,” he said.
As Park mentioned an independent counsel investigation, the Saenuri Party is expected to discuss the possibility. “This scandal must serve as an opportunity to reform our politics and completely root out corruption,” Park was quoted as saying by Kim.
Sung, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises and also a former lawmaker, dropped a series of bombshell revelations last week as prosecutors were investigating whether he bilked the government of millions of dollars in investments in overseas resources projects. Insisting that he was a victim in the Park government’s vendetta against former President Lee Myung-bak, who promoted the resources investments while in office, Sung was found hanged by a necktie from a tree branch on Mount Bukhan on April 9.
While the prime minister has denied having close ties with Sung, the businessman died with a piece of paper in his trouser pocket listing eight politicians including Lee and Blue House Chief of Staff Lee Byung-kee.
Sung also told a local newspaper just hours before his death that he had given 30 million won ($27,556) to Lee and described him as “greedy” and “corrupt.”
The ruling party has already said it won’t shield the embattled prime minister. A special team of the prosecution is also going after Lee, although he has not been formally named as a suspect. Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-an promised Thursday an impartial investigation.
A sense of crisis was evident in the Blue House. A presidential aide said Thursday that Park made a sudden decision to delay her departure and called a meeting with her secretariat and informed the ruling party to fetch Chairman Kim. “She told the secretaries to mange state affairs without interruption while she is gone,” the source said.
The senior secretary for public affairs, Kim Sung-woo, was told to stay in Korea to handle the media reports on the scandal.
It was the first time that Park sat down with the ruling party leader unaccompanied by any aides since Kim won the chairmanship last July.
According to the Blue House, Park talked to Kim unaccompanied by anyone for the first 20 minutes of the meeting. Later, Blue House Chief of Staff Lee Byung-kee joined.
The main opposition NPAD accused the president and the ruling party chairman of trying to buy time.
“The people expected the prime minister’s immediate resignation, but Park didn’t even mention it,” said Kim Young-rok, senior spokesman of the NPAD.
“Chief of Staff Lee is also a target of the prosecution’s investigation, but he joined the meeting. This seems like a strategy session on the corruption scandal.”
The NPAD spokesman also railed at Park for postponing a decision on the prime minister’s fate until April 27. “It is disappointing to see that the president has no understanding of the graveness of the situation,” Kim said.
Prime Minister Lee showed no intention to step down anytime soon. Asked about Park’s remarks, Lee said, “She is saying I must work hard. She means I must work hard and with an undeterred spirit to manage state affairs.”
The prosecution’s special investigation team took the first step to go after Lee on Thursday. It summoned officials who worked on his campaign for a 2013 legislative by-election to ask about the allegation that Sung paid money to Lee.
About eight campaign workers including Lee’s former driver were summoned for questioning about Sung’s alleged meeting with Lee in Lee’s office on April 4, 2013.
The JoongAng Ilbo reported earlier this week, quoting Sung’s associates, that Sung went to Lee’s campaign office in South Chungcheong that day and delivered cash to him.
The prime minister’s former driver also told the CBS broadcasting network about the meeting on Thursday. The man, who worked as Lee’s driver from March to June 2013, said he had witnessed the meeting.
The driver said he remembered the day clearly because the opening ceremony for the new South Chungcheong Provincial Government building took place and many influential people including President Park attended.
“After the event, we drove back to Lee’s campaign office,” the driver told the CBS. “Sung and his secretary were waiting for us.”
He said he remembered talking to the secretary while Lee was meeting with Sung alone inside the office.
Lee initially denied having met with Sung on April 4, 2013, but changed his tune on Thursday. “I don’t remember whether I met with Sung alone that day or not,” Lee said.
BY SER MYO-JA, KIM JUNG-HA [ser.myoja@Joongang.co.kr]