16.07.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Continuation of the Song Young-gil “money envelope” case

Continuation of the Song Young-gil “money envelope” case

 The Seoul Central District Attorney’s Office continues to investigate the high-profile corruption scandal in the ranks of the Toburo Democratic Party, known as the “cash envelopes” case, in which its former chairman Song Young-gil is the main culprit, as we have already described.

Briefly, Song Young-gil was elected leader of the Democratic Party on May 2, 2021, but 2 years later, on April 12, 2023, it was revealed that the election had been rigged. On the eve of the voting at the Democratic Party congress, a number of politicians close to Song Young-gil handed out money in envelopes worth 60 million won (about $48,000) to voters to encourage them to support Song. About twenty deputies received the money.

A number of people have already been detained, including Lee Jung-geun, a former deputy secretary general of the Democratic Party of Korea who oversaw the operation and provided 30,000 phone records demonstrating that numerous politicians were aware of the bribes and discussed Song Young-gil’s candidacy for the position of party leader. The main question is whether Song Young-gil knew or did it behind his back, because on the one hand, most of the phone conversations do not show Song Young-gil as an accomplice or someone who gave orders, but as a key figure and the target of the crime. On the other hand, there is allegedly a recording in which Song praised the good work when he was informed of the distribution of cash envelopes to party members.

In addition to Song, who has the status of prime suspect, the case also involves MPs Yoon Kwang-seok and Lee Seung-man, who directly handed out the envelopes, and Kang Rae-gu, the then head of the Association of Public Institution Auditors of Korea, Yoon allegedly participated in the two-day, 60 million won distribution of envelopes, each worth 3 million won, to 20 incumbent Democratic Party MPs in April 2021. Lee is accused of involvement in the alleged distribution of 9 million won out of the total amount to regional party leaders. Kang has been accused of collecting approximately 80 million won out of a total of 94 million won and allegedly distributing bribes in collaboration with other campaign officials.

On April 12, the prosecutor’s office released some of the contents of Lee Jung-geun’s phone conversations to the media, after which Lee Jae-myung was forced to publicly apologize on April 17, as the mass of evidence no longer allowed for accusing the authorities of fabricating them, which the Democrats had done previously.

On April 24, Song Young-gil returned home from Paris, where he was a visiting professor at the ESCP Business School, and promised to “take the lead in solving the problem in a responsible way.”

On April 25, the prosecutor’s office forbade Song Young-gil to leave the country

On April 29 – early May, prosecutors conducted searches and seizures in 4-5 properties housing, office space in a number of institutions associated with Song Young-gil, as well as with key individuals from Song’s entourage (head of the regional headquarters, etc. involved in the campaign to elect the head of the party in 2021

Investigators were looking for financial documents and accounting data that might indicate Song’s involvement in the distribution of money. Based on the results of searches and seizures of documents and computer equipment in the homes of Song Young-gil and a number of organizations associated with his activities, it was found that some of the hard drives had been formatted or replaced with new ones the day before.

On May 2, Song Young-gil voluntarily appeared at the prosecutor’s office to give an explanation. However, the investigators did not let him in, citing the inconsistency of this step and the fact that it is not currently provided for in the course of the investigation. Afterwards, the former Democratic leader spoke to the press, saying that he had been in the country for a week and that the prosecutors did not want to detain or interrogate him and were only prosecuting those around him. “I ask prosecutors to stop pestering people around me and instead arrest me.

It looked nice, if not for the fact that a few days before the event it was known that “the interrogation will not take place due to the schedule of the investigation team,” so this activity had only worked for the public to create the image of a victim of the regime, who is attempting to enhance his rating in this manner, which has been soiled by “humiliating diplomacy” with the United States and Japan, as well as incompetent economic policies.

On May 3, Youn Kwan-suk and Lee Sung-man announced that they would voluntarily leave the Democratic Party. The overall reaction was “long overdue,” as the Democratic Party asked that they depart in the run-up to the general election in 2024 so as not to tarnish the party’s reputation.

On May 4, prosecutors filed an arrest warrant for Kang Rae-gu on charges of violating the political party law and accepting a bribe of 3 million won from a businessman who solicited business services related to the K-water power plant facilities. The Seoul Central District Court had previously rejected the plea in April due to a lack of proof, but this time, detectives are believed to have discovered additional circumstantial evidence pointing to the suspects’ attempts to switch telephones and destroy evidence. On May 8, Kang Rae-gu was arrested

On May 11, Song Young-gil stated that the investigation intends to consider charging him with destroying evidence. Allegedly, after leaving for France, Song got rid of his smartphone, which he had used in Korea because there was no need to use the Korean number abroad, and after returning to Korea, he bought a new handset, which was seized by investigators during the search but turned out to be clean.

Prosecutors questioned Lee Sung-man on May 19 and Youn Kwan-su on May 22, and then requested arrest warrants for the two lawmakers on May 24.

On May 26, the prosecutor’s office filed charges against Kang Rae-Goo.

On June 5, prosecutors searched the secretariat of the National Assembly, seeking to find out which deputies had received bribes.

On June 7, Song Young-gil again volunteered to appear at the Seoul Prosecutor’s Office and was again refused, after which he again staged a performance. “Rather than bringing people around me in for questioning and forcing them to make statements in a mean manner, I wish the prosecution will summon me and request an arrest warrant for me,” Song told reporters, calling prosecutors “private guards” of President Yoon Suk-yeol.

On June 12, the National Assembly voted to reject a parliamentary consent request for the possible arrests of Youn Kwan-Soo and Lee Seung-man. Before the vote, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon justified their arrests by presenting evidence, including taped conversations, claiming that “buying votes for money is a grave crime that undermines the very foundations of democracy.” Both lawmakers denied the minister’s remarks, insisting on their innocence, and on the eve of the parliament session, a general meeting of Toburo deputies was held in which all suspicions against Yoon and Lee were called false and unfair.

Youn avoided arrest with a score of 145 votes for, – 139 against, Lee with a score of 155 – 132, and this is significant considering that the Democrats have 167 seats in Parliament. This again means that 10-20 “Toburo members supported the prosecution’s initiative.

The vote was the fourth time the National Assembly has rejected petitions to arrest Democratic lawmakers since Yoon Suk-yeol came to power.

It is clear that the investigation is working slowly: as a former prosecutor, Yoon Suk-yeol understands that the evidence against the former opposition leader must be ironclad.

Let us also note how the opposing parties interpret the steps of the figures. Democrats point out that Song is not involved in corruption as a personal enrichment and now does not even have his own house, and Yoon and Lee’s withdrawal from the party is a noble self-sacrifice. Conservatives argue that the problem is about whether the party leader gave money to other party members in order to get elected, not about whether he got money from others. Just because he has less wealth does not make him more ethical. Leaving the party of a man accused of a criminal act and agreeing to be investigated is hardly a noble act worthy of compliment. Rather, it is something that every politician should do in such a situation.

Meanwhile, by the end of April, the Democrat rating had already fallen by 4 points to 32%. In the meantime, by the end of April, the Democrats’ rating had fallen by 4 points to 32%, and the results of the public opinion poll indicated that the “cash envelopes” scandal could have an impact on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in 2024. 56.6% of respondents believe the present circumstances will influence voting results. 40.8% of those surveyed held the opposite opinion.

What to expect next? On the one hand, Song Young-gil’s case draws attention away from the problems of current leader Lee Jae-myung (which will be discussed in a future text); on the other hand, the overall image of the Democratic Party has been dealt a significant blow, and amid other scandals, both conservatives and the opposition in the Democratic camp demand that deputies give up their immunity, so although the arrest warrant for Song Young-gil will likely be rejected in the current situation, time is working against him.

Anyway, so far, we are in the middle of the process.


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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