Doubts linger over troubled ex-defense minister’s envoy role in Australia

Then-Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup speaks during a press conference at a naval weapons test site off the west coast of Anheung, South Chungcheong Province, June 1, 2023. Courtesy of Ministry of National Defense

Skepticism is growing over former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup’s next role as the ambassador to Australia even before his departure for Canberra. His appointment is under scrutiny as it was made while he was under a travel ban during the personnel vetting process.Critics argue that assigning the troubled ex-minister to the role could be a diplomatic misstep in bilateral relations with Australia. This is especially concerning as Korea is actively strengthening ties with Australia in regional security and the arms industry.”Appointing an individual who is under investigation to an envoy post could lead to confusion and awkwardness for the host nation,” said a former diplomat who previously served as an ambassador.He also expressed skepticism regarding Lee’s qualifications as an ambassador, particularly due to the retired Army general’s military background.”Australia is a key partner nation in Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, likely the second-most important country after Japan in that aspect. It’s quite a challenging post. Diplomats with two or three decades of experience should serve in such a prominent role,” he said.According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Australia recently gave its diplomatic consent, known as “agrement,” to Lee’s appointment. Additionally, his diplomatic passport has been issued in accordance with related protocols.

Another former ambassador speculated that Australia may not have been clearly aware of the severity of Lee’s ongoing probe before granting consent.”Background checks for agrement are typically conducted through the embassy of the appointing country. Although it varies by case, some nations may not scrutinize as rigorously as one would expect. Friendly nations tend to respect the host country’s appointment decisions,” he said.Lee was reportedly set to depart for Sydney on Friday evening, just four days after his appointment on Monday.However, he delayed the trip hours before the flight amid widespread scrutiny that he was still under a travel ban imposed by the immigration office.The immigration authorities had imposed a travel ban on Lee in January, as he is currently under investigation by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) on allegations of downplaying an internal Marine Corps probe into the death of a young soldier surnamed Chae.Chae died during a search and rescue operation in the monsoon season of July 2023. Lee, who was the defense minister at the time, faced accusations of attempting to interfere with the military’s internal investigation before the case was transferred to the police.The justice ministry lifted the travel ban on Lee on Friday afternoon, saying that he has promised to actively 스포츠토토존 cooperate with the ongoing CIO investigation.

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