Calls for Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo to resign intensified Tuesday amid a burgeoning graft scandal involving a deceased businessman who reportedly testified that Lee took a large sum of money while he was running for a parliamentary seat two years ago.
Korean daily the Kyunghyang Shinmun released a lengthy script and audio file of the late Keangnam chairman Sung Woan-jong accusing Lee of taking 30 million won at his campaign office in 2013. Lee was seeking to reenter politics through a by-election at the time after suffering from blood cancer.
Lee denied the claim, reiterating that he was neither close to him nor received the money. The premier also said he would take part in the prosecution's probe, amid opposition lawmakers demanding he step down from his post.
"If any evidence that (I) received the money show up, I will end my life," he said during an interpellation session at the National Assembly.
The newspaper raised the fresh allegation by releasing a third part of the 50-minute telephone interview carried out before his apparent suicide last Thursday.
"I gave him 30 million won in cash during the previous by-election," Sung was quoted as saying. When asked if he was aware whether the money was officially submitted as campaign funds, Sung said: "What (official) report? He gobbled it up."
In an apparent effort to distance itself from Lee, the ruling Saenuri Party held an emergency meeting in the afternoon and pressed the prosecution to question the prime minister first. The party leadership, however, said they failed to reach a conclusion on whether to urge Lee to resign before he responds to the prosecution's summons.
The party also vowed that it would not protect any members on the list.
"Regardless of ranks, (officials) should face stern investigation if they are accused of corruption," said Saenuri floor leader Rep. Yoo Seung-min.
Yoo said earlier in the day that the party could establish an independent counsel if the prosecution fails to satisfy the public's demand of a transparent investigation.
Lee was one of eight political heavyweights whose names were written on a memo left by the late businessman. He wrote the amount of money next to the names, except for Lee and Lee Byung-kee, the incumbent chief of staff at the presidential office. Sung was found dead on a mountain last week after facing charges of irregularities over his involvement in failed energy projects during the Lee Myung-bak administration.
The businessman also accused the prime minister of directing the prosecution's investigation into Keangnam Enterprises, suggesting the probe began a month after he delivered a public address to eradicate corruption in Korea. Sung claimed his company had been unfairly targeted.
The prosecution has launched a special investigation into Sung's testimonies, which have rattled political circles.
Suspicions intensified that the people on the list, most of whom are close confidants of President Park Geun-hye, accepted money from Sung and used it to support her election campaign in 2012. The eight politicians include Park's two former chiefs of staff ― Huh Tae-yeol and Kim Ki-choon ― as well as the current mayors of Busan and Incheon.
Calls have been mounting from the main opposition party to set up an independent probe, arguing that the prosecution has failed to stay politically neutral.
All the politicians on the list have said they will co-operate with the prosecution's investigation.
But critics and the opposition party argued that the prosecution won't be free from the influences of Cheong Wa Dae, or the Prime Minister's Office, citing the tradition of authorities reporting the investigation processes of high-profile cases to the upper offices.
The presidential office maintained its earlier position, reiterating that it would wait for the prosecution's probe.
"Cheong Wa Dae has nothing to say," said presidential spokesperson Min Kyung-wook.
"The prosecution's probe has begun and the prime minister has said that he would co-operate with the investigation."
Rep. Moon Jae-in, chairman of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, pressed the prime minister and chief of staff to step down from their posts and urged President Park to speak up.
"The case of a sitting premier and chief of staff facing the prosecution's probe as suspects is unprecedented in history," he said. "The two have to decide on their fate before additional suspicions are raised."
South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, who was also on the list, denied allegations that he accepted 100 million won from Sung through a mutual friend.
The former chairman of the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the Saenuri Party, wrote on his Facebook page that he had never met Sung in private, except for a meeting in Seosan in 2011 where they just exchanged greetings.
Hong is one of the first to be investigated by prosecutors. He is suspected of receiving 100 million won from Sung through his former aide in 2011 while running in the party leadership race.