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South Korea’s New Ambassador to Australia Is a Scourge for the Ruling Party

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South Korea’s New Ambassador to Australia Is a Scourge for the Ruling Party

The Yoon administration is losing more hearts and minds ahead of the general elections.

South Korea’s New Ambassador to Australia Is a Scourge for the Ruling Party

Lee Jong-sup, ambassador-designate of the Republic of Korea to Australia, laid a wreath at the Australian National Korean War Memorial as his first engagement after arriving in Canberra, Mar. 12, 2024.

Credit: Embassy of the Republic of Korea to the Commonwealth of Australia

On March 10, South Korea’s new ambassador to Australia, Lee Jong-sup, hightailed it past airport security hours before journalists arrived. He was naturally all the more perplexed when accosted by a reporter right at the boarding gate. 

“Why do you have to do this?” Lee asked as the reporter trailed behind him on the walk to board his flight to Brisbane.

Sydney would have meant a quicker transit to his final destination, Canberra, but he would have been more easily spotted by fellow Koreans. Given his interest in avoiding attention, Lee seemed more like a fugitive than an official proudly charged with representing South Korean interests in the Indo-Pacific. 


It all began one muggy day in July 2023. As South Korea was reeling from heavy downpours and floods, a marine, Private Chae, drowned in a river during a search and rescue mission. The incident, however, turned out not to be an inadvertent tragedy, but the result of professional negligence. 

The river was too torrential for first responders to dare wading in, confining them to choppers and lifeboats. Then Major General Lim Sung-geun, then commander of the Marine Corps’ 1st Division, allegedly commanded his underlings to “go knee-deep and poke everywhere” for bodies in the river. Chae and his mates were forced to enter the turbid, roiling water without life vests and other safety equipment. Making matters worse, they were from an artillery battalion, not the rapid response force or the special reconnaissance battalion that trains frequently in water. 

Lim was apparently obsessed with public relations and grandstanding before the public. In texts to his staff, he gloated over the media coverage of the marines he sent into water. Officers on site held that Lim spared not a single word on the marines’ safety, raving instead about how the marines should behave in front of the cameras. One lieutenant colonel revealed that the whole search operation “was staged for strategic communication.”

When Chae drowned, Colonel Park Jung-hun, who led the Marine Corps’ investigation unit at the time, recommended charging eight officers with “professional negligence leading to manslaughter.” Lee Jong-sup, then the defense minister, received Park’s investigation report, agreed with the content, and signed off on it to be forwarded to the civilian police. (To help end the military’s practice of obfuscating deaths resulting from bullying and sexual assault, a 2021 amendment to Military Court Act dictates that the military must consign cases involving deaths to civilian authorities.)

Shortly afterward, however, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser allegedly pressured Park over the phone to expunge the names and charges against the top brass, Lim and one brigadier commander. Lee Jong-sup directed Park not to hand over his report to the civilian authorities, overturning his own approval from the day before. Considering the order to be an abuse of power interfering with the judicial process, Park defied Lee and submitted the report to the civilian police last August. 

The Defense Ministry Prosecutor’s Office wrested the report from the civilian police, a move that stifled the Marine Corps’ independent investigative authority and trampled the law that requires a smooth transition of a military case to a civilian body. The ministry’s Criminal Investigation Command scrapped the initial report and absolved most of the officers under suspicion. Then Lee openly covered for Lim, saying, “It’s the defense minister’s responsibility not to criminalize an innocent person.” 

At the end of August 2023, the ministry filed an arrest warrant for Park for insubordination.

Its arrest request form, however, contradicted Lee’s assertion that he issued no orders to influence the outcome of the criminal investigation. In the form, the ministry itself wrote that Lee had instructed Park not to specify any suspects in the report. But Park alleged that it wasn’t just the minister who applied external pressure to impede the due legal process.

Before Park consigned the matter to the civilian police in early August 2023, the president’s national security office requested and received Park’s report and the script for his press briefing. Then Lee canceled Park’s briefing at the last minute. On July 30, President Yoon Suk-yeol convened a meeting. The Marine Corps commandant who attended the meeting, according to Park’s statement, relayed to Park that the president was furious at the report and demanded that Lee water it down.

When Park produced evidence that could implicate the president, the ministry requested his arrest warrant based on “the need to prevent him from leaking” more damning materials to the public. The Defense Ministry charged him with insubordination and fired him from the Marine Corps’ investigative unit for having breached military discipline. Park continues to fight legal battles against the ministry. 

In September 2023, the opposition Democratic Party called for an investigation by the Corruption Investigation Office (CIO) and threatened to impeach Lee. He tendered his resignation to Yoon. In December, the CIO placed an overseas travel ban on Lee. In January, it carried out search and seizure against individuals implicated in the matter. But then on March 3, Yoon appointed Lee as ambassador to Australia, which led the Ministry of Justice to lift his travel ban days later. (It’s so rare for the ministry to repeal travel bans that less than 0.01 percent of appeals are approved.)

Immediately, public outcry erupted over Yoon evacuating a criminal suspect. It’s estimated that the ruling People Power Party (PPP) shed some 15 percentage points in its approval rating in early March due to Lee’s “escape.” 

Korean émigrés in Australia have staged protests in Canberra, claiming that Lee’s presence there is an international disgrace. An Australian legislator, Cameron Murphy, joined the latest demonstration, saying that Lee “is shielding himself from a very important corruption investigation by taking up this appointment as ambassador to Australia” and that Australia deserves someone better.

Diplomacy took a back seat to political reckoning. As demands for his return to South Korea gained traction, PPP leader Han Dong-hoon announced on March 20 that Lee would soon return home for an ambassadorial meeting on the defense industry.

It was bizarre that it was the ruling party, not pertinent ministries, that announced the event. Even the ambassadors of other countries found out about it after watching the South Korean media, not through official diplomatic channels in advance. In addition, there was no pressing agenda on defense production, and even if there were, ambassadors would normally meet online. After all, they were all scheduled to meet up in April, anyways. 

These points suggest that the whole diplomatic gabfest was staged so that Lee could return home while saving face and placating public indignation. The government concocted an unnecessary talkfest for political convenience ahead of the April general elections. This is diplomatic impropriety.

Before Lee returned to South Korea on March 21, he urged the CIO to settle the dates for his subpoenas. However, the CIO still needs to complete forensic analyses of confiscated phones and desktops and probe witnesses before progressing up the chain of command to Lee. 

The PPP suspects the CIO is deliberately dragging the investigation to time its cross-examinations of Lee right before the general elections on April 10 or even later so that the so-called “Run Jong-sup” scandal keeps haunting the government. Months- or years-long investigations are the norm when it comes to high-ranking officials, yet Han called the delay as result of “the CIO’s politicking,” while the presidential office called it a “human rights violation.”

Another headache for the government immediately followed the Lee scandal. Hwang Sang-moo, senior secretary to the president for civil and social agenda, while admonishing a group of journalists to be careful when writing on Yoon, ominously mentioned a terror attack in 1988 where the military’s secret agents stabbed a journalist. Hwang intimated that a similar tragedy could befall the journalists of today for not toeing the line. He eventually resigned, but the damage was done.

Voter sentiments were already testy, and this callous gaffe alienated non-partisan voters, nudging the DP past the PPP in mid-March polls. 

Citing Lee’s return and Hwang’s resignation, Han glibly remarked that “everything was resolved.” Voters don’t seem to agree. The ambassadorial meeting slated to take place on March 25 was postponed, confirming the widespread perception that it was shoddily put together at the last minute as a pretext for Lee’s homecoming. True resolutions to these issues would have meant Lee admitting that he returned specifically to face due investigations and Yoon firing Hwang rather than waiting for his resignation. 

As it stands, in the latest round of analyses electoral wonks predict the DP will once again secure a parliamentary majority in the April 10 general elections.   

The Lee scandal is not an isolated anomaly. It rather reflects the Yoon administration’s holistic governing style, devoid of empathy and introspection. The government leans over backward to shield its friends and family from legal consequences while leveraging the full weight of the prosecutor’s office against foes and persecuting the media on trumped-up charges of spreading fake news. (The Anti-Corruption Commission still balks at probing the Dior pouch scandal, in which the first lady received a designer bag from an acquaintance.)

Partisan lines and electoral ramifications aside, Chae’s death and the subsequent alleged manhandling by Yoon and Lee of the entire defense establishment to cover for the top brass rightly pricked everyone’s conscience. It all garishly reminds the voters that ordinary folks like Chae, a conscripted marine, are second-tier citizens to Yoon’s coterie. And, of course, packing away such a controversial figure as envoy to Australia only to then reel him back home for domestic political reasons is a severe breach of diplomatic trust between Australia and South Korea.