SEOUL: South Korean President Park Geun-Hye on Monday accepted the resignation of her prime minister over a widening bribery scandal that has tainted senior members of her faltering administration.
Park was on a four-nation tour of South America when Lee Wan-Koo offered to step down. The decision was confirmed by an official from the president’s office hours after her return.
Although nominally the second highest official in the country, the prime minister fills a largely ceremonial role in South Korea, where power is concentrated in the presidency.
But the post carries symbolic weight and Lee’s departure after barely two months in the job is a fresh blow for an increasingly beleaguered Park.
Lee’s hand was forced by a scandal triggered by the suicide earlier this month of Sung Wan-Jong, the former head of a bankrupt construction company.
In the dead man’s pocket, investigators found a note that listed the names of eight people — including Lee and presidential chief of staff Lee Byung-Kee — alongside numbers that allegedly indicate bribery sums.
The suicide came as Sung was about to be questioned by prosecutors over allegations that he created a slush fund with embezzled company money to bribe politicians and government officials.
Although Lee had repeatedly protested his innocence, the pressure to step down intensified after the main opposition party said it would seek his formal impeachment.
“I feel very sorry for causing a public anxiety… but I believe the truth will be revealed certainly,” Lee said in a farewell statement.
These are turbulent times for President Park, whose approval ratings have yet to recover from the pounding they took in the wake of last year’s Sewol ferry disaster.
Recent weeks have seen major anti-government street protests in Seoul by ferry victims’ relatives and their supporters, as well as trade union-organized rallies across the country to denounce Park’s labor reforms.
The president’s trip to South America, which critics said was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the Sewol disaster, kept her out of the direct firing line for a while, but there will be little respite now she is back.
The presidential office said earlier Monday that Park, who on her return avoided the usual press briefing for reporters accompanying her on the flight, had been advised to rest for two days after complaining of stomach cramps and a sore throat.
Her spokesman put her condition down to overwork and fatigue.
In a statement, Park’s ruling Saenuri Party said it regretted the prime minister’s resignation.
“But it reflects the president’s firm determination to use this as the starting point for political reform,” the statement said.