Korean envoy to Singapore was under audit: Source

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Korean envoy to Singapore was under audit: Source

Korean ambassador to Singapore Lee Sang-deok, who was suddenly recalled to Korea Monday, was revealed to be undergoing an audit for alleged abuse of power, according to a government source on Thursday.

Lee previously served as the director general for Northeast Asian affairs at the Foreign Ministry and led the Korean side in the nearly monthly negotiations with Japan to come to a deal on the issue of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery during World War II.

These negotiations, which first kicked off in April 2014 under the previous Park Geun-hye administration, eventually paved way for the controversial bilateral so-called comfort women deal of Dec. 28, 2015, which the Moon Jae-in government has since described as “highly flawed.”

The Moon government, however, stopped short of scrapping or renegotiating the deal, while underscoring that the agreement is not a true resolution of the issue.

Lee was appointed as ambassador to Singapore in April 2016 by former President Park Geun-hye. Ambassadorial posts usually span three years, so his sudden return sparked media speculation that his dismissal was somehow linked to his role in the comfort women deal.

A Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman on Tuesday confirmed Lee’s return the previous day and explained the reason as being “personal matters,” under his wishes. The spokesman did not specify that Lee had been assigned to a new post, but added that he maintained his status as a diplomat.

But, according a government source, the prime ministers’ office conducted a secret inspection of embassies and consulates in the Asia region at the end of last year and found issue with Lee’s words and conduct.

Lee was alleged to have treated employees brashly and made chauvinistic remarks, which the prime ministers’ office determined could be problematic.

The case has been turned over to the Foreign Ministry, and internal audit officials are reviewing the case.

It is rare for an ambassador, even while undergoing an audit, to be summoned back to Seoul so abruptly.

In the past, even when a diplomat was under audit for such abuse of power, a summons back to Seoul would usually happen as a last resort if there was considerable basis for the allegations and after a thorough internal audit by the Foreign Ministry.

But Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, said in a briefing on Thursday, “Ambassador Lee Sang-deok returned for personal matters, and it will be difficult for us to explain such various personal details pertaining to him.”

Recently, Chung Byung-won, currently a professor with the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy, faced light disciplinary action for failing to adhere to his duty to maintain his dignity as a civil servant.

Chung had previously served as Lee’s successor as director-general for Northeast Asian Affairs and had been tasked with following up on the comfort women deal.

Chung reportedly remarked that “women are inferior,” but the Foreign Ministry determined that his remarks were difficult to construe as sexist under the context and issued the light disciplinary action.

The slap on the wrist he received was said to have resulted in some internal backlash.

Kim Ok-chae, Korea’s consul general to Fukuoka, is also expected to be recalled from his post. Kim aided Lee Byung-kee, former chief of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), in his negotiations with Shotaro Yachi, national security advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

He started out in the NIS and took the Fukuoka post in October 2016. He is returning after just 15 months, though the post usually lasts for two to three years.

One diplomatic source said, “Though the Foreign Ministry says it isn’t so, I can’t help think there are reshuffling measures that take into consideration the current administration’s position on the comfort women agreement.”

BY PARK YU-MI, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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