March 14, 2006

S.Korea PM quits over golfing gaffe

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on
Tuesday accepted the resignation of his prime minister, who
faced calls to step down for playing golf with businessmen
while a railway strike was causing transport chaos.

Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan had offered to step down
earlier in the day, the presidential Blue House said in a
statement. The incident comes as Roh is battling the lowest
support ratings for his administration since it took power in

In South Korea's political system, executive power is
vested with the president. But Roh, who campaigned on a pledge
to share power, had given considerable authority to the prime

Several newspapers and politicians have called on Lee to
quit for failing to attend to the national rail strike and
instead playing golf with a group that included a businessman
convicted of financial crimes and another under investigation
for price fixing.

Lee met with Roh earlier in the day and Lee apologized for
the incident and for "causing trouble with careless conduct,"
the Blue House said.

Roh returned on Tuesday from a three-nation tour of Africa.

Independent political analyst Yu Chang-sun said the
resignation will make it harder for Roh to implement his
domestic policy agenda. "Roh will be hard pressed to find a
person of Lee's caliber," Yu said by telephone.

Lee, a five-term legislator and prime minister since June
2004, was largely responsible for the daily running of domestic
policy and was considered one of the most powerful premiers in
the country's history.

He oversaw the administration's efforts to boost the
regional economy, reverse a sharply declining birth rate and
reform a national pension plan that analysts said may not be
financially sustainable.

Lee was also under to pressure to step down from members of
his ruling Uri Party in order to avoid any damage to the
progressive party as it battles local elections in districts
across the country in May.

Lee has canceled his appearances for the next few days,
including a meeting with business leaders on Wednesday and
another with the ruling party on creating jobs, an official at
the prime minister's office said by telephone.

Lee's office had a role to play in the rail strike because
it involved the state-run national railway as well as the
transport ministry, his critics said.

Lee was criticized previously for playing golf when South
Korea had trouble mobilizing firefighters to extinguish a
forest fire that engulfed a historic temple and again when
large parts of the country were battling floods.

Roh had stood by Lee, saying few people shared his
political ideals as closely as Lee did. Lee, a former democracy
activist and later education minister, was widely expected to
serve until Roh's single five-year term ends in early 2008.