Prime Minister nominee Rep. Lee Wan-koo came under severe attack by opposition lawmakers at his parliamentary hearing on Tuesday as they disclosed voice recordings of him allegedly trying to intimidate journalists.
Rep. Lee, the ex-floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, was nominated by President Park Geun-hye last month. But accusations including real estate speculation, draft-dodging and intimidating journalists have endangered his appointment.
The disclosure of Lee's voice recordings was expected to intensify a partisan fight over whether the appointee was fit to serve in the nation's second-highest official post.
Lee, who has acknowledged the voice in the recordings was his, will have to convince legislators of his eligibility by Thursday, when a plenary vote decides his nomination.
In the recording divulged by New Politics Alliance for Democracy legislators, Lee can be heard telling reporters that he had "enough power to handpick" the presidents and professors of local universities.
Lee can also be heard saying in an apparently threatening tone that he would vote for a strict anticorruption bill that would incriminate civil servants and reporters if they or their families received gifts, however small. The draft bill is known as the Kim Young-ran bill, named after a former Supreme Court judge who initially pushed for the bill.
"You know what? I'll just let (the anticorruption bill) pass," Rep. Lee says in the taping. "Then you'll know what we (public officials) have to deal with." Lee appears to be protesting a story that mentioned allegations of Lee having speculated in real estate.
Lee initially received bipartisan support when he was picked to serve as prime minister on Jan. 23. The third-term lawmaker's reputation as a moderate compromiser and deal broker had won the political trust of some senior main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy legislators.
But reports that the appointee had made successful investments in Gyeonggi Province and a luxury apartment in Seoul's posh Gangnam district in the early 2000s raised eyebrows.
Lee was also accused of helping his son dodge the country's mandatory military draft in 2006 and of having evaded service himself by pretending to have flat feet.
Parts of the leaked recording were already publicized last week by public broadcaster KBS, showing him making threatening comments to journalists writing critical stories about him. Lee can be heard saying he "knows people" in the media, and that he could "get certain (reporters) fired."
Lee tried to extinguish the growing political wildfire during his hearing by defending his comments as being made in an informal gathering.
"I would like to first apologise. But everything I said (in the recording) was during a luncheon with a few young journalists that I personally meet from time to time."
"And as to my remarks on the KYR bill, I would like to emphasise that I am a believer in the freedom of the press. If the bill passes, reporters could be subject to harsh restrictions that limit their freedom," the lawmaker said.
"But I beg your forgiveness."
If the National Assembly votes against Lee, Park's prospective Cabinet shake-up could be delayed or cancelled altogether as her "welfare without taxation" policy continues to take fire from critics, including members of her own party.
Park's tax policies have been dismissed by critics as unrealistic, with lawmakers stressing lower-than-expected tax revenues. On Tuesday, the Finance Ministry announced that the government had collected 10.9 trillion won ($10 billion) less than expected in tax revenues last year.
A dozen bills aiming to boost economic output will likely remain pending if Lee's nomination is stonewalled and exacerbates partisan strife. The bills include one designed to stimulate crowd-funding and one legalizing the construction of tourist attractions such as casinos near public schools.
Analysts say that the Park administration badly needs Lee's political acumen as her public ratings have fallen to new lows, with polls suggesting less than 30 per cent of the public approve of her performance.