S. Korea's parliament speaker quits over bribe scandal

SEOUL - South Korea's parliamentary Speaker resigned on Thursday over a bribery scandal which has tarnished the conservative ruling party in a key election year.

Park Hee-Tae was alleged to have offered cash envelopes to lawmakers of the Grand National Party before a vote - which he won - to select a new party chief in 2008.

Park, who became Speaker in 2010, said in a brief resignation statement he was "really sorry" for the scandal but did not acknowledge personal wrongdoing.

"Please lay all responsibility on me... I intend to quit my position," he said in a statement read by his spokesman.

It was the first time the country's parliamentary Speaker has quit over corruption allegations.

The ruling party's interim leader Park Geun-Hye in a statement welcomed the resignation, which came after leading lawmakers had urged the Speaker to step down to minimise political damage to the party.

The scandal was exposed by a GNP lawmaker who said he received an envelope stuffed with three million won ($2,685) from an aide to the Speaker, which he returned.

The disclosure prompted a major probe by prosecutors and dealt a blow to the conservatives, already suffering from waning support.

The party now holds 166 of the 299 parliamentary seats along with the presidency. But it anticipates a struggle in the April general election and the presidential poll in December.

Recent surveys show the main opposition Democratic United Party is more popular than the ruling party amid growing discontent over social and economic inequality and an economic slowdown.

The embattled conservatives, in a bid to shed their image as the party for the rich, have shifted policies leftward to focus on welfare for the poor.

The former Grand National Party also changed its name - to the Saenuri party - a common rebranding tactic in Korean politics. The party said Thursday its name in English would be the New Frontier Party.

Critics said the new name would merely be cosmetic without a major change in the party's senior leadership.

The Speaker's departure will put further pressure on the leadership to reform, said Kim Min-Jeon, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University in Suwon south of Seoul.

"There will be more and more talk of personnel overhauls and finding new faces to distance the party from its old image of the Grand National Party," she told YTN news channel.