President Roh Moo-hyun accepted the resignation of his prime minister Tuesday after the premier set off a scandal by playing golf during a national railway strike.
Lee Hae-chan came under pressure to leave after his golf outing on a March 1 national holiday that coincided with the start of the walkout. His departure was delayed while Roh was on a trip to Africa, but he offered to step down Tuesday when the president returned.
Roh accepted Lee's resignation after ruling party leaders urged him to defuse the scandal ahead of local elections in May.
It wasn't the first time Lee was caught with clubs in hand when critics said he should have been behind his desk.
He was golfing in April 2005 when a wildfire destroyed a 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple. And he was rounding the greens in July when heavy rains struck southern parts of the country.
Adding to Lee's woes this time were his golfing pals, who included a businessman with a criminal record for rigging stock prices.
The man, who runs a flour mill in the southern port city of Busan, was reportedly ordered the day after the game to pay $3.6 million in fines for fixing flour prices. Some opposition critics suggested the man tried to persuade Lee between holes to bail him out of the mess.
The game also involved $411 in bets, and one of Lee's fellow golfers covered the costs of the round — a sizable expense in golf-crazy South Korea, which has astronomical greens fees and mandatory caddy charges in the hundreds of dollars.
The main opposition Grand National Party filed a complaint with prosecutors claiming Lee could have received requests for favors from the businessmen. After the resignation announcement Tuesday, the party said the investigation of what it has labeled "Golfgate" should continue.
Lee, who had been in the post since June 2004, repeatedly apologized for the incident before offering to resign.
Opposition has its own scandal
The uproar came as the opposition sought to divert attention from a scandal of its own: a senior lawmaker's fondling a female reporter's breasts while drunk. Choi Yeon-hee, 61, has since resigned as secretary-general of the Grand National Party. There have been increasing calls for him to also give up his parliament seat.
Lee's departure as prime minister was expected to touch off jockeying for the job inside the ruling Uri Party, which is split internally and has a new head, former Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, who is eager to prove he can one day run the country.
The prime minister's post is a largely ceremonial job with little real power, which is concentrated in the president's office. The president himself has increasingly been viewed as a lame duck: Roh's popularity numbers fell to record lows after a failed attempt to form a grand coalition with the opposition and amid a stall in the country's economy.
Roh took office in 2003 and is constitutionally barred from running again. Last month he suggested that even the single five-year term for the country's presidents might be "a little too long."