SINGAPORE: South Korea's ambassador to Singapore Lee Sang-deok has been dismissed from his post, the Korea Times reported on Tuesday (Jan 30).
The report cited sources as saying that Lee had likely been sidelined because he led negotiations in a controversial 2015 "comfort women" deal with Japan that Seoul last year criticised as "flawed".
Under the agreement, Japan expressed responsibility and apologised to victims, promising a 1 billion yen (US$9.2 million) fund to help them.
The former South Korean administration and the Japanese government had agreed that the issue would be “irreversibly resolved” if both fulfilled their obligations.
However, a South Korean investigation appointed by the government concluded in December that the dispute over the women could not be “fundamentally resolved” because the victims’ demand for legal compensation had not been met.
The Korea Times on Tuesday cited confirmation from Seoul's foreign ministry that Lee had permanently returned to Seoul, but that his leaving was not related to the deal.
"I don't know the details but all I know is that Lee gave up his job because of a purely personal matter," a ministry spokesman told the Korea Times.
"I don't know what position Lee will take in Seoul," he added. "A new ambassador won't be appointed until the regular reshuffle in spring."
The report also said that if Lee is not assigned to any duties for the next six months, he will have to resign.
Lee was appointed as ambassador to Singapore by ousted former president Park Geun-Hye in 2016 and was to have ended his three-year term in 2019.
President Moon Jae-in said in December last year that the deal agreed upon in 2015 has "significant defects in terms of procedures and content".
"The agreement cannot solve the comfort women issue," Moon had said, calling it a "political agreement that excludes victims and the public".
It sparked another diplomatic row as Japan said the deal resulted from “legitimate negotiations” and that any amendment may complicate relations.
"Given that his dismissal came after Moon labelled the bilateral sex slavery deal as defective following a review by the foreign ministry's taskforce, it is obvious that it was affected by his role in the deal," Korea Times quoted a source close to the diplomatic circle as saying. It did not name the source.
The source implied that the dismissal was sudden, saying: "Also, not so long ago, Lee had been taking the initiative in preparing for the ASEAN Summit in cooperation with state organisations and private firms based in Singapore."