Photo: Lee Wan-gu. Credit: Facebook page of Lee Wan-gu.
Lee Wan-gu 이완구, the 43rd Prime Minister 국무총리 of the Republic of Korea, passed away on October 14 from cancer. The former Chungcheongnam-do Province governor 충청남도지사 was a major force in conservative politics, acting as the champion for South Korea’s central region that has often functioned as a swing area in a national politics that has been historically divided between liberals in the southwest and conservatives in the southeast.
His aggressive style of politics that focused on inside baseball was sometimes compared to Frank Underwood of the Netflix series House of Cards. He faced trouble in February 2015 when a recorded conversation between Lee and a group of journalists was made public. In the recording, which leaked when the popularity of the Park administration was at a low point, Lee was heard cajoling and threatening the journalists: “I have friends at colleges, I’ve made journalists into professors and college presidents. . . . But I’m not going to protect you anymore. . . . I’ll watch you scream as you get summoned by the prosecutors and the police.”
Lee appeared to emerge as a potential presidential candidate in 2015, when then-President Park Geun-hye 박근혜 대통령 appointed Lee as the second prime minister of her administration. Lee began his prime minister position with a strong campaign against corruption, but was soon implicated in a corruption scandal of his own, when Seong Wan-jong 성완종, former CEO of a construction company who was a conservative legislator during the Lee Myung-bak 이명박 administration, committed suicide in April 2015 while being investigated for embezzlement. Seong left behind a note that listed the politicians who had received his money - including Lee Wan-gu. (Hong Jun-pyo 홍준표, then-governor of Gyeongsangnam-do Province and currently a conservative presidential candidate, was also on the list.)
Disgraced, Lee resigned from his prime minister post just 63 days after his appointment, making him the shortest tenured prime minister in South Korean history. Both Lee and Hong were convicted of bribery charges, which were overturned on appeal in 2017. Lee weighed a comeback after the guilty verdict was overturned, until he was diagnosed with blood cancer.