South Korea ambassador to Australia returns home amid allegations of investigation interference News
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South Korea ambassador to Australia returns home amid allegations of investigation interference

South Korea’s ambassador to Australia Lee Jong-seop returned to South Korea on Thursday after facing allegations of interference in the investigation of the July 2023 death of Sergeant Choi Su-geun. Lee left South Korea after being appointed as ambassador to Australia in March despite being named as a criminal suspect in the Senior Public Service Crime Investigation Office’s investigation into Choi’s death.

Lee arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday. He stated he temporarily returned to South Korea from Australia to attend a meeting of heads of missions from major countries related to defense industry cooperation.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Lee’s return is the July 2023 death of Choi. On July 17, 2023, the Marine Corps deployed the First Division Rapid Mobility Force to restore and support Yequan City, which had been damaged by heavy rains. Choi was a member of the Marine Corps division that was deployed. On July 19, Choi disappeared after being swept away in rapids during a search and rescue operation for missing persons. He was found dead 14 hours later.

On August 21, the Department of Defense Investigation Command released preliminary findings on the July 19 incident. The department found that only two lieutenant colonels violated the instructions of the brigade commander and found guilty. However, the former leader of the Marine Corps Park Jung-hoon stated that the National Security Office of the Presidential Office repeatedly requested the investigation reports on the grounds that the Department of Defense Investigation Command should report to the National Security Office Director. Park indicated that the investigation may have faced external pressure. At the time, Lee served as the Minister of National Defense.

Then, on October 6, the National Assembly passed the Special Prosecution Act Concerning Controversy over External Pressure in Accidence/Death Investigations. The purpose of the act was to investigate whether the Presidential Office and the Department of Defense distorted the investigation into Choi’s death and attempted to conceal incidents.

In March, the Senior Public Service Crime Investigation Office listed Lee as a suspect in its ongoing investigation into any interference into the Choi death investigation. As a part of his status as a suspect, Lee was banned from leaving the country. However, the same month, President Yoon Seok-yeol appointed Lee as the ambassador to Australia. Lee shortly thereafter left the country.

According to Article 123 of the Criminal Law of South Korea, if a public official abuses their power or causes others to the same, they will be punished with up to five years in prison, a suspension of their qualifications, imprisonment for up to ten years, or a fine of up to ten million won.