South Korea's ambassador to Singapore Lee Sang Deok has abruptly returned to Seoul, reportedly dismissed from his post for his leading role in a controversial 2015 settlement of the "comfort women" issue with Japan.
A check by The Straits Times on the South Korean embassy's website yesterday showed that the "ambassador's greetings" page, which usually contains a message from the top diplomat, is under maintenance.
Confirming Mr Lee's departure, South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) yesterday said he was asked to return permanently to Seoul on Monday, with no further duties assigned to him, The Korea Times reported.
Mr Lee had been due to serve until April 2019. Mofa did not disclose the reason behind his sudden exit.
"I don't know the details but all I know is that Lee gave up his job because of a purely personal matter," Mofa spokesman Noh Kyu Duk was quoted as saying by The Korea Times yesterday.
"I don't know what position Lee will take in Seoul," he added. "A new ambassador won't be appointed until the regular reshuffle in spring."
According to regulations, if Mr Lee is not assigned any duty within the next six months, he will have to resign, The Korea Times reported.
The issue of comfort women, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II, is a hugely emotional one that has long marred ties between Korea and its former colonial ruler.
Former president Park Geun Hye sought to end the decades-long row with an agreement in 2015 that included a Japanese apology and payment of one billion yen (S$11.7 million) to survivors.
Mr Lee, who was appointed ambassador to Singapore by Park, was the director-general of North-east Asian affairs at the Foreign Ministry when he spearheaded the negotiations with Japan.
Park's successor Moon Jae In has called the deal "seriously flawed" and ordered an investigation into the agreement which he said failed to meet the needs of the victims.
But earlier this month, South Korea announced it would not seek to renegotiate the deal with Japan, and would stop using Tokyo's money - a large chunk of which had been disbursed - and use its own funds instead for the reparations.
"Given that his dismissal came after Moon labelled the bilateral sex slavery deal as defective following a review by the Foreign Ministry's taskforce, it is obvious that it was affected by his role in the deal," a source close to the diplomatic circle was quoted as saying by The Korea Times.
But Mofa has denied the speculation. "As far as I know, Lee's replacement was not related to his role in the comfort women accord," Mr Noh said.