SEOUL - South Korea's former envoy to Singapore, who is speculated to have been sacked for his role in a controversial comfort women deal with Japan, said in a farewell note to friends that he was leaving the city state because he had completed his tenure.
"It is with much regret to inform you that I will depart Singapore for Korea on Monday, 29 January 2018 upon completion of my tenure as Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Singapore," Mr Lee Sang Deok wrote in the note sent last week. A copy was obtained by The Straits Times.
"This imminent departure brings to me mixed feelings as I will be leaving this country which I have grown to love very much," he added.
A typical posting for an ambassador is three years and Mr Lee, 57, was to have served till 2019.
Contrary to media speculation that Mr Lee was sacked, a source told The Straits Times that diplomats cannot be fired unless they have serious run-ins with the law, such as criminal offences.
But they can be recalled by the presidential Blue House, which has the final say in the appointment of envoys.
The source said Mr Lee may end up becoming an ambassador-at-large, which means he is not assigned to any country, or choose to retire early. The retirement age for civil servants is 60.
Mr Lee did not respond to calls and e-mails to reach him.
His sudden departure has fuelled talk that he was sacked over his key role in a landmark comfort women deal with Japan that remains controversial today.
Mr Lee was appointed as ambassador by impeached president Park Geun Hye in April 2016, about four months after South Korea and Japan inked a "final and irreversible" agreement to settle the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.
Then serving as director-general for north-east asian affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Mr Lee was the chief negotiator in 12 rounds of talks with his Japanese counterpart.
The deal, which included an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a one billion yen (S$12 million) fund to help the victims, was recently reviewed by the administration of liberal President Moon Jae In.
Even as he acknowledged that the deal is official and not renegotiable, Mr Moon has labelled it "seriously flawed" for disregarding the views of the victims. Only 33 of them are still alive today.
Early last month, Mr Moon urged Japan to issue a fresh "heartfelt" apology but this was rejected by Mr Abe.
A source who knew Mr Lee said it was "obvious" that he had become the fall guy for the comfort women deal, as his exit came a month after results of the Moon administration's review was released.
Diplomatic sources familiar with Singapore matters were surprised by Mr Lee's departure, noting that it is "unusual" for an envoy to leave so abruptly without a successor named.
Some Foreign Ministry officials told local media that Mr Lee returned for "personal reasons" and a new ambassador will be dispatched after the next regular reshuffle in March or April.
Word has it that as many as eight out of the 10 ambassadors assigned to Asean member states will be changed, with plans for the new envoys to push for Mr Moon's key policy agenda of deepening engagement with the regional bloc.
Analysts said it is important to send a new envoy to Singapore as soon as possible, as the city state has assumed Asean chairmanship this year and will host a series of major meetings involving South Korea. President Moon is also expected to visit Singapore this year.
Dr Lee Jae Hyon, a South-east Asian expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said: "The new ambassador should bear in mind that Korea and Singapore can work together in development projects in other Asean countries and be partners in discussing regional strategic matters including US-China rivalry in the region.
"We can also be good partners in new economic frontiers like the fourth industrial revolution," he added.