The main opposition party leader on Monday renewed pressure on the governing party to agree on impeaching Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, as more circumstantial evidence emerged suggesting he had accepted illegal campaign funds just before a 2013 election.
Rep. Moon Jae-in, chair of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, urged the governing Saenuri Party to agree to an impeachment motion to be submitted by as early as Wednesday. If the ruling party accedes, it appears likely the motion will pass.
"Lee's (alleged) involvement in a graft scandal has paralyzed the government," Moon said earlier Monday. "The longer the scandal drags on, the more burden it will be on the Park Geun-hye administration. The Saenuri Party must agree to vote on impeaching Lee," he added.
Many of the majority Saenuri Party lawmakers and almost the entire opposition are expected to support the motion, parliamentary sources said. President Park must approve the motion for it to take effect.
"I don't think the scandal will even last that long," Yoon Pyung-joong, professor at Hanshin University, said, suggesting that Lee could either succumb to the pressure to resign, or Park would be forced to sack him.
"Not only would (the Assembly impeaching) a prime minister be unprecedented, but the president would need to distance herself from Lee unless she wants to risk becoming a lame duck with still more than half of her term left."
South Korea has considered impeachment motions for eight of its past prime ministers, and has put three of those motions to a legislative vote since the country's founding in 1948. However, the Assembly has never approved an impeachment against a prime minister.
Lee allegedly accepted 30 million won (S$28,000) in unlisted campaign funds in the April 2013 parliamentary by-elections from the late Sung Woan-jong according to a local newspaper's interview with the businessman on April 9, hours before the police found him dead in an apparent suicide.
The prime minister has denied accepting any black money from Sung. Lee has also denied having close relations with the deceased.
But prosecutors on Sunday said phone records showed Lee and Sung had up to 210 phone conversations since March last year, adding to the mounting evidence against Lee.
Sung is the former chair of construction firm Keangnam Enterprises and a former governing party lawmaker.
Prosecutors had been probing Sung in the days before his death, on allegations that the mogul had swindled government subsidies, a charge that he vehemently denied. Sung had called the investigations against him a witch-hunt at a press conference on the eve of his death.
One day later, hours before his death, Sung alleged giving illegal funds to Lee and other Park administration officials, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential race and also before the 2007 Grand National Party presidential primary. The GNP is the Saenuri Party's forerunner.
Authorities on Sunday added they had evidence backing allegations that Sung had also bribed financial regulators when Keangnam Enterprises had been under a workout program in 2013.
Park officials linked to Sung's graft claims have denied receiving money. They include South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, former presidential chiefs of staff Huh Tae-yeol and Kim Ki-choon, Saenuri Rep. Hong Moon-jong, and Lee, among others.
Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn expressed concern on Monday at a hearing in the Assembly that the ongoing probes were challenging, as Sung's allegations dated back to 2007, and also because he is no longer alive to provide further testimonies.
The growing scandal is also expected to adversely influence the Saenuri Party candidates running in the parliamentary by-elections on April 29, observers said. Four parliamentary seats are on the line.
Saenuri chair Rep. Kim Moo-sung appeared to renew efforts to minimize the scandal's impact on the coming polls when he apologized to voters on Monday.
"The (Sung Woan-jong scandal) has shown how much politicians have lost the public's trust," Kim said. "I take this moment to apologize as one of those politicians."
"The Saenuri Party will ensure that ongoing prosecutorial probes into the scandal will be carried out justly. We will agree to any special prosecution probe if current investigations fail," the five-term lawmaker added.
The alleged bribe scandal is impeding the Park administration's efforts to implement its policy agenda this year as lawmakers shift focus to the scandal, and away from legislative revisions to South Korea's public service pension and other initiatives Park calls "key reforms."