In a speech to the RoK Parliament on June 19, 2023, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, stated that he intended to renounce his parliamentary immunity in order to dispute the prosecutor’s allegations against him.
Let us take a moment to reflect on what came before this really significant action. The former mayor of Seongnam, governor of Gyeonggi Province and main rival of Yoon Suk-yeol in the 2022 presidential election, Lee is a person of interest in several criminal cases:
- Corruption in the development of the Daejean-dong residential area, the main content of Seongnam Gate. Lee Jae-myung is suspected of causing 489.5 billion won ($375.4 million) in damage to the city by approving projects for the benefit of private developers who made 1000+% profit.
- Similar types of corruption were present at the Wirye New Town residential development: insider information about the project’s development led to a profit of 21.1 billion won.
- Forcing businessmen to donate 13.3 billion won ($10 million) to Seongnam FC in exchange for building permits and other favorable terms.
- In a separate proceeding, Lee is accused of breaking election laws while campaigning for president in 2022. Lee denied knowing Kim Moon-gi, one of the Seongnam Gate figures, but there are photos that show Lee posing with Kim during a lengthy foreign business trip in January 2015
- In addition, Lee may become involved in the case of Ssangbangwool Group, which, according to the investigation, transferred millions of dollars to the DPRK with his knowledge.
Prosecutors had requested an arrest warrant for Lee on corruption and bribery charges related to his tenure as mayor of Seongnam, but lawmakers can only be arrested during the legislative session with the consent of the National Assembly, in which Democrats have 167 votes out of 300.
Not surprisingly, the Assembly rejected the request on February 27, 2023, but by a one-vote margin, since at least 30 Democrat members voted against the party line.
On Feb. 28, prosecutors filed multiple charges (including embezzlement, breach of trust, and violations of the currency and capital market laws) against Ssangbangwool’s former finance official and brother-in-law of former Chairman Kim Sung-tae. The individual is accused of participating in the transfer of $8 million to North Korea through China in 2019 and embezzling 5.4 billion won from affiliates of the group from 2014 to 2022 and 53.2 billion won from unregistered companies created in the names of group executives from 2019 to 2021.
On March 10, 2023, Jeon Hyung-soo, Lee’s chief of staff when he was the mayor of Seongnam and governor of Gyeonggi Province, committed suicide. According to the suicide note, Jeon was upset about becoming one of the defendants associated with Lee Jae-myung, saying that he had always tried to be an honest official and “only did what he was told.” And he allegedly directly urged Lee Jae-myung to stop engaging in politics. This was the fifth time in the last two years that a member of Lee’s inner circle who could testify against the boss had committed suicide or died of natural causes. Furthermore, there should have been six dead bodies – Kim Man-bae, the largest shareholder of Hwacheon Daeyu Asset Management (the main figure in Seongnam Gate) twice tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the chest and neck, but at the last moment he changed his mind and asked his lawyers to call an ambulance. The individual is currently being held on fresh charges, likely to prevent the next suicide attempt from being successful. The more cases where everyone who can testify against Lee Jae-myung dies sooner or later from suicide or natural causes, the more difficult it is to explain it by coincidence. No sign of a violent death has been found in any of the cases, and even the author does not yet have extensive evidence.
On March 21, the former vice governor of Gyeonggi province Lee Hwa-young, who had previously been charged with accepting bribes and illegal political donations from Ssangbangwool Group, was once more accused of breaking the Foreign Exchange Act for allegedly conspiring with Ssangbangwool to transfer $8 million to North Korea through China between January 2019 and January 2020.
On March 22, 2023, one year after the investigation began, Lee Jae-myung’s case went to trial. He was accused of five crimes by the prosecutor’s office: exceeding his authority, accepting bribes, concealing illegal proceeds, and breaking the law on the prevention of conflicts of interest for public officials. Then an intriguing conflict occurred.
The membership of a person charged with corruption is prohibited under Article 80 of the party’s code. Suspended until the situation is clarified. This meant that Lee Jae-myung would be unable to carry out his responsibilities, but the Democratic Party revised its charter in 2022 to state that if the party assessed that the indictment was politically motivated, the accused might stay in its ranks. Chairman Lee’s supporters instantly stated that Lee would retain his chairmanship because the majority of party members believe he is being politically harassed. According to deputy Woo Sang-yo, the DPK held a party affairs committee meeting and decided that there were “unfair reasons, such as political persecution,” thus exempting Lee from losing his chairmanship, as stipulated in the party’s charter.
As anticipated, the Democratic Party held an emergency Supreme Council meeting on March 22 and agreed to allow Lee Jae-myung to continue serving as the party’s chairman despite the corruption allegations made against him.
However, Lee’s opponents have urged that he step down in order to avoid legal ramifications for the 2024 parliamentary elections. “The distrust within the party is growing because there are suspicions that Lee is using the party to solve his personal problems”. Furthermore, some of Lee’s opponents have taken the step to suspend Lee Jae-myung from the presidency while the investigation is ongoing.
The following day, on March 23, 51 Conservative MPs, including floor leader Joo Ho-young, vowed to waive their right to immunity, claiming that not doing so would only increase the public’s mistrust of politics and the hostility between the opposing parties.
On March 27, there were a series of reshuffles in the top leadership of the party. A large part of Lee Jae-myung’s associates left the Supreme Council and were replaced by those who actively criticized Lee.
On April 21, the Seoul Central District Court granted bail to Jeong Jin-sang, a vice chief of staff to Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee, on the condition that he pay 50 million won ($37,600) bail, refrain from direct or indirect contact with people involved in his cases, and wear a location-tracking device.
Jeong was arrested on Nov. 19, 2022, on charges of receiving about 240 million won from real estate developers in Seongnam, south of Seoul, between 2013 and 2020 in exchange for business services for a development project started when Lee was mayor. Jeong was also suspected of being promised a 24.5 percent stake in a land development project worth 42.8 billion won.
On May 4, 2023, another key aide to Lee Jae-myung, Kim Yong, who was charged in November 2022 with receiving illegal political funds in 2021 from the developers of a corrupt residential development project in Daejeon-dong and appropriating 190 million won ($144,486) in bribes in 2013-14 from a former senior official at the Seongnam City Development Corporation in exchange for business services, was released on bail.
Bail, on the other hand, was not tied to establishing innocence, but to the fact that, under RoK law, an individual under investigation can be imprisoned for up to six months once charged, unless the court issues a new arrest warrant.
On May 11, 2023, the first trial of Lee Jae-myung began, and on May 23, the Suwon District Court found Ahn Bu-soo, president of the Asia-Pacific Peace Exchange Association, guilty of several charges, including violating the Foreign Exchange Act, and sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison.
Ahn was found guilty of smuggling over 500 million won ($380,000) into China on two different occasions in 2018 and early 2019, with the funds finally making their way to North Korea. He was also found guilty of embezzling about 1.2 billion won and spending it for personal gain. The verdict was the first decision in the scandal involving the Ssangbangwool Group.
Then, on June 19, Chairman Lee abruptly stated that he was relinquishing his privilege of not being arrested. In the beginning, he spoke at length about Yoon Suk-yeol’s power (“the country has regressed in the last year, and the expression ‘before you know it, the country has gone from developed to backward’ has become popular”) in very unflattering terms. And then he said that the prosecutor’s office, which is supposed to protect the constitution and human rights, only protects the president and has conducted more than 300 raids as part of the investigation against him, opening a criminal case against almost everyone close to him during his years as mayor of Seongnam and governor of Gyeonggi province.
“I think they are trying to cause discord and division in the Democratic Party of Korea… – I will not give them a reason … I won’t give them a pretext … I will give up my right to immunity from arrest in the political investigation against me.” By doing so, Lee intends to reveal “the true face of an administration that is prone to “raids, arrests and political strife.”
Conservatives immediately urged Lee not to talk but to act, and the media under their control pointed out that the decision to give up the privilege was a natural, if belated, move. It was shameless of Lee to claim that he had made a difficult decision, without uttering a single word of regret for having already used the privilege as a means of avoiding arrest.
Especially important is that Lee makes the decision not by choice, but by the will of circumstances.
On June 21, 67 of 113 conservative lawmakers pledged to waive immunity from arrest after party leader Kim Gi-hyeon pointed out that the privilege, originally intended to protect lawmakers from political persecution, was being abused to protect corrupt politicians and suggested it be waived.
On June 23, 2023, the Innovation Committee of the Democratic Party of Korea also demanded that all Democratic deputies sign “written statements renouncing their privilege not to be arrested and that the party adopt this as official policy.”
As noted in the media, immunity played a role in protecting opposition politicians under past authoritarian regimes, but in the era of democracy there is strong public opinion that it should be abolished, especially since Lee Jae-myung himself promised to cancel the privilege during his presidential campaign.
For the author, this means that the cunning politician understands that circumstances are stacked against him and prepares to play ahead. The charges are getting more serious, and the likelihood that a vote in parliament will save him from arrest again is low, to say the least.
On the one hand, there is less direct news about Lee – attention has been drawn to two other scandals – the already described Song Young-gil case and the scandal around deputy Kim Nam-kyuk, who turned out to have an astronomical fortune in cryptocurrency, even though previously it was not necessary to declare savings of this kind.
On the other hand, evidence unpleasant for Lee is piling up, and the May poll showed that 57.1 percent of respondents believe that the prosecutor’s office has sufficient evidence to investigate Lee Jae-myung, suspected of a series of corruption offenses. Only 36.3 percent perceive this case as “oppression of the opposition and political revenge.”
It remains to “play Georgi Dimitrov” and try to turn the trial into a political process, earning a reputation as a victim.
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”.