President Lee Myung-bak plants trees with citizens at the Korea National Arboretum in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, to celebrate Arbor Day, which fell Thursday. / Yonhap
By Chung Min-uck
Lee Sang-don, in charge of political reform as a member of the ruling Saenuri Party’s interim leadership committee, said President Lee Myung-bak should step down from the presidency if it is proven he knew of an illegal surveillance case, calling it identical to the U.S. Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
“The illegal surveillance case is exactly the same as the Watergate scandal. Nixon didn’t instruct the illegal spying but stepped down from presidency for covering up the case,” said Lee during a radio interview, Thursday.
Richard Nixon, former President of the United States, quit the presidency in 1974 taking responsibility for the bugging of the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters during his re-election bid.
“Even if President Lee didn’t know about the case in advance, making a formal apology won’t do if he happens to be somehow responsible for it,” he said.
The Saenuri Party earlier asked the Lee administration for a formal apology.
In response to whether he was calling for the President’s resignation, Lee said “it is possible to interpret it that way.”
Prosecutors are currently extending their investigation into top-level officials at Cheong Wa Dae after arresting two former presidential secretaries Tuesday for destroying evidence to cover up the scandal.
It is the first time a ruling party member has asked Lee to step down over the administration’s alleged spying activities on citizens.
Lee Sang-don, a law professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, joined the party’s interim leadership body led by Rep. Park Geun-hye last December. Since then he has played a key role in the party’s “anything but Lee drive” to cope with the growing public frustration with the Lee administration ahead of the parliamentary elections slated for next Wednesday.
Insiders say the comments made by the law professor are in line with the ruling party’s long-held strategy of distancing itself from the Lee administration.
“The Saenuri Party should distance itself from the Lee administration to win the upcoming elections. But ironically, talk of the President’s resignation as its official stance could lead to it losing its conservative voters. It is too much a burden to have it as the party line,” said Yoon Hee-woong, a senior analyst at polling agency Korea Society Opinion Institute. “I guess the ruling party said what it really wants to say through the mouth of Lee Sang-don, while at the same time maintaining its former position.”
The Saenuri Party downplayed the committee member’s comment saying it was a personal opinion that has nothing to do with the party.
The surveillance case emerged as a key election issue last week after striking television journalists revealed 2,619 illegal surveillance cases conducted by the presidential office under the current and previous administrations.
The main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) soon politicized the case urging Lee to voluntarily step down and linked it to Park Geun-hye referring to the case as a revival of late former Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian era.
Rep. Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee.
Against this backdrop, Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party struck back stressing 80 percent of the 2,600 some cases cited in the document were done by the previous administration and that the DUP is not free from blame.
This was later confirmed to be true.
Experts say it is yet to be seen which party the scandal will be favorable for as the DUP has less chance to take advantage of it since criticism could spill over to it.