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South Korea's President to Approve Fraud Investigation of Successor

  • Kurt Achin

The office of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun says he will not prevent an independent counsel investigation of the man elected to replace him next year. Experts say the probe into possible fraud by president-elect Lee Myung-bak may hurt his ability to form a government. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korea's presidential Blue House issued a statement Wednesday saying President Roh Moo-hyun's Cabinet has approved a measure to investigate president-elect Lee Myung-bak on fraud allegations. The move is a prelude to Mr. Roh signing the bill into law.

Lee's conservative Grand National Party had asked President Roh to veto the probe into allegations he engaged in fraud using a U.S. business partnership called "BBK."

State prosecutors cleared him of criminal accusations earlier this month. However, new doubts have surfaced in connection with a video showing Lee talking about his role in founding BBK - an apparent contradiction of Lee's statements saying he had no connection to the firm. Wednesday's Blue House statement says those doubts should be resolved.

Lee won the presidency last week by a decisive double-digit margin and is to take office February 25.

Hahm Sung-deuk, professor of political economy at Korea University in Seoul, says Mr. Roh's approval of the investigation gives Lee an unwelcome distinction.

"President-elect Lee Myung Bak will be the first Korean president-elect to face a crimes investigation," said Hahm.

A sitting South Korean president enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution. However, as president-elect, Lee now faces the possibility the probe will produce charges before the inauguration - when he is not protected. Experts widely agree that is very unlikely to happen.

Still, Professor Hahm says the investigation will still have an effect.

"All the scandals... will undermine his ability as a president-elect to prepare his government, and therefore undermine his ability to govern the country as a president," said Hahm.

Hahm says because Lee's party does not have a majority in South Korea's legislature, the allegations against him could limit his ability to gain lawmakers' approval for his choices of Cabinet officials.

They could also limit Lee's effectiveness in carrying out the ambitious economic reforms he promised during the campaign. The political cost of that might be seen in major legislative elections scheduled for April.

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