National / Politics

Former South Korean envoy to Japan detained over illegal payment allegations


South Korean prosecutors detained on Tuesday the country’s former ambassador to Japan and former chief of the National Intelligence Service over allegations that his agency made illegal payments to aides of then-President Park Geun-hye.

Lee Byung-kee was detained by investigative authorities in Seoul on suspicion that the agency illegally paid 4 billion won ($3.57 million) to the aides during his term, according to the Yonhap news agency. He had been under investigation since Monday.

In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said at a news conference that the detention of Lee, South Korea’s main architect of a “comfort women” deal with Japan, would not affect bilateral ties.

Lee is believed to have played a key role in completing the 2015 agreement on the women who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels when he served as chief of staff to Park.

Concerns are growing that the detention of Lee, who served as ambassador to Japan under the Park government, may further reduce the possibility of the deal — in which Tokyo and Seoul agreed the comfort women issue was “resolved finally and irreversibly” — being implemented.

Brushing aside such fears, Kono said, “This is a domestic issue in South Korea. I don’t think this will have an influence on Japan-South Korea relations.”

While Tokyo has repeatedly called on Seoul to implement the agreement signed in December 2015, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has shown eagerness to renegotiate it.

Under the accord, Japan paid ¥1 billion ($8.8 million) last year to a South Korean fund to provide support to the women and their families, while South Korea promised it “will strive to solve,” in consultation with civil society organizations, Japan’s objections to a “comfort women” statue in front of its embassy in Seoul.

Lee served as the South Korean ambassador to Japan from June 2013 and was chief of the National Intelligence Service from July 2014. He took up his post as chief of staff to Park in February 2015.

Park, who was South Korea’s first female leader, was imprisoned in March this year after being thrown out of office over a corruption and abuse-of-power scandal.