(2nd LD) Top envoy to Australia attends defense meeting of ambassadors

Ambassador to Australia Lee Jong-sup attended an interagency meeting of South Korea's ambassadors to six countries on defense cooperation on Thursday amid controversy over his return home. The meeting came as criticism grew over Lee's appointment and departure after revelations that he was being investigated for alleged interference in a military probe into a Marine's death. Lee returned to Seoul last Thursday, 11 days after he assumed the job as the top envoy to Canberra. Lee kept mum on questions about his stay here both as he arrived at and left the foreign ministry building for the meeting that wrapped up at 5 p.m. Speculation arose that the meeting could have been organized in haste to give Lee a pretext to return home because the public sentiment is worsening in the run-up to the parliamentary elections set for April 10. The meeting was attended by South Korea's ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Qatar and Poland, as well as Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul. Defense Mini ster Shin Won-sik, Industry Minister Ahn Duk-geun and Seok Jong-gun, head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, also joined the meeting. In a joint statement released after the meeting, the foreign ministry and relevant agencies said they assess the meeting as being a very useful opportunity for making practical contributions to the government's aim to boost arms exports. The officials discussed the global defense market, issues on defense cooperation and exports, as well as policy support measures. Cho emphasized the role of ambassadors who are at the forefront of talks with different governments, while Shin called for close cooperation among relevant agencies so that arms exports could lead to strategic cooperation among countries. As part of such efforts, the ambassadors will visit defense firms between Monday and Wednesday next week, they said. A foreign ministry official added that the ambassadors will return to their countries of duty on different dates. Lee previously came under press ure to return following revelations he was under a travel ban at the time of his appointment over his alleged interference in a military probe into the death of Cpl. Chae Su-geun. Chae was killed last July during a search mission for victims of heavy rains when Lee was the defense minister. Source: Yonhap News Agency