Lee, who is entering the final months of his presidency, expressed “pride in myself” over his efforts to crack down on political corruption but said that recent events had caused him embarrassment.
“I started off with my very own belief that I would be involved in clean politics,” he said. “However, my whole world seemed to be collapsing as disappointing and regrettable incidents occurred to people closest to me. I can barely hold my head up with embarrassment and sorrow.”
South Korean prosecutors are investigating whether any of the money allegedly received by his brother had been used to fund Lee’s 2007 election campaign. A spokesman for the president said he did not want to respond to this suggestion to avoid influencing the investigation.
One person close to Lee said the apology was intended to “make clear his sincerity” to the Korean people, but added that the president’s statement that the scandal was “all my fault” should not be seen as any kind of admission of guilt.
“It’s a cultural touch. In the Korean culture, when something goes wrong, if you’re the boss you have to express your regrets,” the person said.
This was Lee’s sixth public apology. He had previously expressed regret over incidents including a controversial move to resume the importation of U.S. beef in 2008 and in 2011, over a broken promise to build an airport in the country’s southeast.
However, it is unlikely to boost the popularity of a president widely seen as a lame duck ahead of his departure, due soon after December’s presidential election.
South Korea’s constitution restricts presidents to a single five-year term, but analysts say Lee would have stood little chance of winning reelection in any case, given his dismal approval rating, which stood at 28.6 percent last month.
Public opposition has been driven partly by a widespread perception that he is too friendly to big business and that he has paid insufficient attention to the poor. His uncompromising stance towards North Korea has also proved controversial.
Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Lee’s apology would not impress the public.
“Until recently, he was saying that his is the most corruption-free government in Korean history,” Moon said. “People will have some feeling of betrayal.”
— Financial Times