02.05.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will the Lee Jae-myung case be followed by a Song Young-gil case?

Will the Lee Jae-myung case be followed by a Song Young-gil case?

On April 17, 2023 Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, the country’s main opposition party, made a public apology, not in relation to his own personal situation, but in relation to past events which primarily involved Song Young-gil, his predecessor as party leader.

Song Young-gil was the leader of the Democratic movement in the 1980s, and also served as mayor of Incheon, served three terms as a deputy in the National Assembly, and was, for a time, Moon Jae-in’s Special Envoy to Russia. In May 2021 he was elected chairman of the Democratic Party, beating his opponent by a margin of just 0.6%, but after Lee Jae Myung’s defeat in the 2022 presidential election he formally retired. On June 1, 2022 he stood as a candidate for the post of mayor of Seoul, but lost by a wide margin to the current mayor, the conservative Oh Se-hoon, after which he left the country, but without giving up his position as Executive Advisor of the Democratic Party. Since December 2022 he has lived in Paris, where he was invited as a visiting professor of the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris.

At one time Song Young-gil was a close associate of Moon Jae-in, but as the latter progressively withdrew from politics he tried to build up his own political group, which supports Lee Jae Myung. Shortly after his victory as party leader in May 2021, his party is considered to have switched its allegiance from Moon Jae-in to Lee Jae Myung. Moreover, Song Young-gil’s career movements have also provided a certain political benefit to Lee Jae Myung. When Song Young-gil stepped down as a deputy to stand for the post as Mayor of Seoul, Lee Jae Myung stood as candidate for the deputy of “his” constituency of Incheon, and then, in August 2022, became leader of the Democratic Party.

The scandal dates back to the run up to the Party’s 2021 National Conference, which was to have elected the new party leader. Before the conference, envelopes containing 94 million won ($71 000) were paid to MPs and other party members. It is believed that money was paid to at least 40 people, including 10-20 deputies from the Democratic Party. The goal was to help Song Young-gil obtain the post of Party Chairman – in which he was, in the end, successful.

The story begins with Lee Jung-geun, formerly deputy general secretary of the Democratic Party, being suspected of having accepted unlawful payments. On April 12, 2023 she was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for accepting more than 1 billion won ($754 660) in bribes and illegal donations between December 2019 and January 2022 from a businessmen known only by his surname, Park. Court bailiffs seized money and luxury items which she had received in exchange for promises to lobby government officials and state organizations on behalf of the donors.

In her final statement to the court before the verdict, Lee Jung-geun claimed that she had initially borrowed funds from Park for political purposes, but that the businessman had turned out to be a loan shark who demanded large sums of money and then started spreading malicious rumors about her. She filed a lawsuit against him, after which he gave false information to the state prosecutors.

Significantly, the sentence imposed by the Seoul Central District Court was more severe than the three-year sentence requested by the prosecutors.

It then turned out that Lee Jung-geun is also suspected of involvement in paying bribes to party members, and it appears that she has “turned state’s evidence.” It may be that, angered by getting a more severe sentence than she expected, she decided to drag in others – those who had no wish to politicize her case and thus obtain her release at any cost. Anyway, be that as it may, on April 12 the prosecutors ordered the homes and offices of two Democrat MPs to be searched in connection with charges that they had helped finance a specific candidate and illegally received tens of millions of won from political funds in connection with the 2021 party leadership election. The MPs in question were Youn Kwan-suk and Lee Sung-man. The former had campaigned on behalf of Song Young-gil,who gave him the post of party general secretary after the election.

The prosecutors claim that, with Lee Jung-geun acting as an intermediary, Youn Kwan-suk illegally received payments of 90 million won ($68 110) from Kang Rae-gu, at the time head of the Association of Public Institution Auditors of Korea.

Naturally both the two MPs and Song Young-gil all insisted that they had nothing to do with this business and that the prosecutors had not provided any clear evidence to justify the charges against them.

On April 13, the Democratic Party criticized the charges as “politically motivated”. Lee Jae-myung accused the prosecutors of “distorting and manipulating facts on a daily basis” and the high-profile Democrat politician Woo Sang-ho has suggested that the case was brought at short notice in order to deflect attention from the scandalous allegations that US intelligence agencies had been listening in on conversations held within the South Korean government about whether Korea should provide arms to Ukraine.

But on April 17, Lee Jae-myung apologized for his allegations, which had snowballed out of control.

“As party leader, I apologize sincerely for causing people so much worry about this matter.” He added that “the full circumstances of this case are still unclear, but I am sure that our party needs to present our position… we call for a prompt and fair investigation uninfluenced by any political considerations.” The party also requested Song Young-gil to return to Korea as soon as possible in order to help deal with the accusations.

The radical change in the party’s fortunes occurred after recordings made by Lee Jung-geun of telephone conversations – some of which included discussions concerning the handing out of envelopes of cash – had been leaked to the media. For example, Kang Rae-gu, the former head of the Association of Public Institution Auditors of Korea, was recorded saying to Lee Jung-geun: “Ten envelopes are ready. Please give them to Deputy Youn (Kwan-suk).” In another of the conversations, three Democrat MPs openly asked to be included among the recipients. And in another recording a mid-ranking civil servant told Lee Jung-geun that Song Young-gil had thanked her for providing dozens of envelopes to party members. Another of the audio files contains hints that Song Young-gil was directly involved in getting together the money that would enable him to win the election. This evidence suggests that Song Young-gil, during his fifth term as deputy, not only knew about the envelopes of cash, but also – as alleged by the prosecutors – personally handed them to party members. Lee Jung-geun also claims that Song Young-gil knew about the alleged bribes.

What is the current status of the affair? Song Young-gil has still not returned to Korea, but he has announced that a special press conference is to be held on April 22 to address the scandal. He claims that he has discussed the matter with party leaders and that he will take a decision concerning his position based on the results of the ongoing investigation. “In my telephone conversation with Lee last night, I fully understood his comments and also explained my position… As I have already said, I do not know anything about the allegations and will decide what position to take depending on the investigation into the charges.” However he then added that he knew nothing about the bribery scheme, and then took a further step backwards by insisting that it was a matter of “wrongdoing by individuals”, and criticized the prosecutors for “political actions aimed at changing the situation.”

The Conservatives, naturally, have been gripped by the scandal. “We are shocked by the fact that in the run up to the elections of the head of the largest party in parliament envelopes of cash were being handed out all over the place.” Song Young-gil needs to return home as soon as possible and cooperate with the investigators, and Lee Jae-myung, while he has “apologized for the vote-buying scandal, is silent about the accusations concerning his own conduct. He needs to apply the same principles to himself as he does to others.” The Conservatives are also demanding an investigation into “possible links between the two factions”, given that “at the convention, Song Young-gil was helped by Lee Jae-myung’s supporters.”

 Moreover, in the light of the escalating scandal, certain figures in the Democratic Party are calling on Song Young-gil to take full responsibility for the scandal and retire from politics. For Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, one of Lee Jae-myung’s most prominent critics, the whole case is “a dirty business, that belongs in the gutter and nowhere else”. And Deputy Ko Min-jung, formerly presidential spokesperson at the Blue House, expressed sorrow at the “collapse of the party’s reputation as the defender of democracy.”

The prosecutors are also continuing with their work, and have been questioning Kang Rae Goo, who is accused of collecting some 80 million won of the total sum from businessmen and other persons in Daejeon, a city 139 km to the south of Seoul. He is also accused of receiving 3 million won in bribes from a businessman who sought services in connection with power plant facilities operated by K-water. Kang Rae Goo is reported to deny most of the charges against him but he insists that “the day will come when I will speak out.” On April 21, a motion for his arrest was rejected by a court.

On April 22, the former chairperson of the Democratic party held a special press conference. During this event Song Young-gil apologized to the public and to his party, and announced that he was leaving the party so that he could cooperate with the court investigation as a private citizen. “In order to take all the political responsibility on my own shoulders I am leaving the Democratic Party and resigning as the party’s executive advisor … Irrespective of whether the charges are legally grounded or not, all the responsibility is mine, and I will answer the many allegations against those who have helped me.”

Song Young-gil added that he is returning to Seoul to deal with the scandal, asked the prosecutors to call him as soon as possible, and undertook to “actively cooperate with the investigation” and “only return to the Democratic Party once all the problems have been resolved.” He continued to deny that he knew about the alleged bribery scheme at the time of the Conference, claiming that he “was rushing around (from one event to another) every 30 minutes” and was “in no state to personally get involved with every issue.” Strangely enough, despite the busy schedule, the present author finds that explanation scarcely plausible.

As we have seen, Song Young-gil also decided not to give up politics altogether as “I was not in politics for career reasons or for the money…. I am motivated only by my calling to achieve reconciliation for our country and peaceful reunification (of the two Koreas).”

This speech did not have any effect on the line taken by the party. The Democratic party declared that it respects the decision of its former leader and that it “wants the truth about the incident to be revealed quickly and transparently, and independently of any political considerations”, while the Conservatives insist that “temporarily leaving the party, returning home, or apologizing are insufficient to quell the public’s anger or to hide the truth.”

For a number of reasons, the current situation is, to say the least, highly unpleasant for the Democratic party. Firstly, direct bribery and the handing out of cash in envelopes have always been the kind of tactics that the Democrats have accused the Conservatives of engaging in, and now it seems that they resorted to these methods themselves. Secondly, despite the audio recordings, nobody has accepted any responsibility. Song Young-gil has put all the blame on “wrongdoing by individuals”, while oun Kwan-suk and Lee Sung-man, the two Democrat MPs suspected of making the cash payments have accused the investigators of “political repression.”

Thirdly, there is the question of what to do about Lee Jae Myung. On the one hand, it is easy for him to attack representatives of a different party faction, and claim that the party is reforming and is fighting corruption. On the other hand, since he is also accused of corruption, this argument would appear highly specious. And, yet again, there is less than a year until the next parliamentary elections, and the deputies who are currently under suspicion are trying to keep their seats, so that their immunity can shield them from arrest. Lee Jae Myung could have expelled them from the party or prosed a motion for their arrest, but then how could he have done that while he is clinging onto his own post and only managed to avoid arrest by a margin of one vote And then if the deputies are expelled from the party, where would they go and would the party lose its parliamentary majority as a result?

The present author will follow the situation as it unfolds, and, for the time being, will wind up with a quote from a Korean newspaper: “Most of the party’s deputies who are now suspected or wrongdoing were at one time champions of democracy. Do they really want to be remembered, not as fighters against corruption, but as fighters FOR corruption?

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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