On August 31, 2023 Lee Jae-myung, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, (or Deobureo Minjoo Party), pitched a tent in front of the National Assembly building and began an indefinite hunger strike to protest against the policies of the current government, which caused him to be hospitalized. The reason for it is President Yoon Seok-yeol’s approval of prosecutors’ request for his arrest on September 20, and the request has now been submitted to the National Assembly for further consideration.
The prosecutor’s office has accused Lee of numerous offences, and, so as not to repeat them in future articles, we shall list them here for future reference.
Who is Chairman Lee Jae-myung?
In many ways, Lee Jae-myung’s career is reminiscent of that of Boris Yeltsin. He came from a poor family, he started working from an early age, he sustained an arm injury that left him disabled (in Russian terms, he would be a Category 3 invalid), and then had a career in the organization Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and having made his name as a defender of workers’ rights he went into politics.
In 2010 Lee was appointed as Mayor of Seongnam. He was successfully re-elected in 2014, and then ran as a candidate in the 2016 primaries, but lost out to Moon Jae-in, even though for some time he had been in the lead.
In 2018, Lee became the governor of Gyeonggi Province, adjacent to the capital, and in 2022, he won in the primaries, but lost the election to Yoon Seok-yeol by a margin of 0.73%. Unlike other politicians, after losing the election Lee did not retire from public life, but took advantage of the leadership crisis within the Democratic Party to secure the position of leader, and, as his critics allege, pack the Party with his supporters.
Lee Jae-myung quickly established a reputation for unconventional approaches, becoming one of the first South Korean politicians to regularly post on social media, and known for his openness and attention-grabbing policies. For example, upon becoming mayor of Seongnam, he immediately imposed a moratorium on the city’s debt payments, and launched the largest public investment campaign in Korean history. The problem is that the city’s debt situation was not nearly that bad at to justify such a radical move. Nevertheless, this measure allowed him to launch an investment campaign that made him popular, but also served as a basis for future corruption scandals, with much of the money – prosecutors allege – being handed out to supporters in off-the-record payments.
Аnd what is he accused of?
Lee Jae-myung has long had a reputation as a person with criminal links and a dishonest politician. Back in 2016, the noir action film Asura: The City of Madness, in which the character of the corrupt mayor is clearly based on Lee Jae Myung, was released in Korea.
Various accusations have been made against Lee under Presidents Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in, and Yoon Seok-yeol. A certain actress accused him of adultery (which was, until 2015, a criminal offense in South Korea) and his own family accused him of using his position as mayor to have his brother sent to a psychiatric hospital. But Lee Jae-myung won all these cases.
Moon Jae-in, as President, made unsuccessful efforts to get rid of his competitor, and at the end of Moon’s term of office Lee Jae-myung, now the only real contender for the presidency, was able to breathe a sigh of relief. However, when Yoon Suk-yeol, formerly the prosecutor general, came to power, the investigative apparatus steeped up its operations and several criminal cases were opened against Lee, the most high-profile of which we will look at below.
- Corruption relating to the development of the Baekhyeon-dong neighborhood, in what is commonly referred to as the “Seongnam-gate” scandal. Lee Jae Myung is suspected of causing the city losses totaling 489.5 billion won ($375.4 million) by granting contracts for the benefit of private developers (the minor construction firm Hwacheon Daeyu, run by former journalist Kim Man-bae) who made profits in excess of 1000% from the project. As it later appeared, this money was used by Lee Jae-myung’s PR company (including for the purpose of running a campaign to discredit Yoon Suk-yeol) and to pay his legal team. And although participation by a city’s mayor in corrupt construction schemes is a familiar story for Russian readers, in terms of the scale of this operation Lee really crossed the line.
- Corruption relating to the development of the Wirye New Town district, involving a similar method: the provision of insider information on a project to develop a neighborhood on the site of a former U.S. military base, resulting in profits of 21.1 billion won. The scheme resembled that in the Baekhyeon-dong case – a private company run by Lee’s associates was able to make an inordinately large profit. In October 2022, the two cases were merged, and it was in relation to this case that the authorities tried to have Lee Jae-myung arrested for the first time.
- Corruption relating to development in the Baekhyeon-dong neighborhood. The scheme was broadly similar to the previous one, but with a difference. The Seongnam municipal government provided a number of preferential administrative services to Seongnam RD PFV, a private real estate developer which was also the sponsor of Lee’s 2014 election campaign. In 2015-16 the developer was in charge of a reconstruction project involving the conversion of buildings in the former Korean Food Research Institute complex into apartments. For some reason city somehow canceled the original plan, which was to convert the buildings to rental accommodation, and instead allowed the developer to sell the apartments to consumers. As a result, Seongnam RD PFV allegedly made a windfall profit of 318.5 billion won ($245 million), and Asia Developer, Seongnam RD PFV’s main shareholder, reportedly received dividends totaling some 70 billion won.
Moreover, 3 months before the land was sold to a private developer, Lee Je Myung personally signed documents changing the status of the land on which the Institute stood, and prosecutors suspect that it was Lee who made the final decision to change various municipal approval procedures in order to benefit private developers. Prosecutors suspect Lee of caused the municipal government to incur losses totaling some 20 billion won worth, allegations which are denied by Lee, who claims that the decisions were taken in accordance with suggestions from the city government departments that reviewed the project and which had an interest in its approval.
- Pressurizing businessmen into making donations to Seongnam Football Club. Lee purchased the club, and then, between 2014 and 2016, businessmen “invested” a total of 13.3 billion won ($10 million) in it exchange for receiving construction permits and other benefits. In the same case, Lee is charged with concealing the payment of a 4 billion won bribe. Under South Korean law, this constitutes “an offer of bribes to a third party”, although Lee insists he was simply purchasing advertising.
- The Ssangbangwool Group case, in which, as investigators believe, Lee was a party to the transfer of millions of dollars to the DPRK. In 2018 and 2019, at the request of Lee Hwa-young, the then Vice-Governor of Gyeonggi, Kim Seong-tae, the head of the Ssangbangwool underwear manufacturer ordered dozens of the firm’s employees to smuggle a total of 8 million dollars into China. Of that money, $3 million were intended to facilitate Lee Jae-myung’s then-planned visit to Pyongyan, while the remaining funds were to be used for a smart farm project.
The head of the company, Kim Seong-tae, who had formerly been involved in organized crime, was one of Lee Jae-myung’s funders. Ssangbangwool is suspected of paying fees to a lawyer who represented Lee in an appeal against his conviction for election law violations. The firm paid the lawyer 2.3 billion won ($1.85 million) in cash and in Ssangbangwool convertible bonds. The same lawyer led Lee Jae-myung’s legal team during the 2022 presidential campaign.
The exact details of the corruption scheme are (which constituted an “offer of a bribe to a third party” under South Korean law) are unclear, at least to the present author, but according to prosecutors, it was part of an attempt by Lee Jae-myung’s associates to organize his independent visit to North Korea after he was excluded from Moon Jae-in’s official delegation to Pyongyang in 2018 due to political squabbles. It was believed that Lee’s visit to the DPRK would have helped his chances in the presidential election primaries.
However, if the authorities so wish, the payment of bribes to North Korean officials are can be interpreted – at a stretch – as violations of the relevant article of the National Security Law on financing the criminal regime of the DPRK, which is a more serious offence than just corruption.
Meanwhile, Lee Hwa-young, the former Vice-Governor of Gyeonggi who was arrested and charged in connection with the $8 million case, initially denied Lee Jae-myung’s involvement. But in June 2023, he changed his testimony and admitted that he had informed Lee Jae-myung about Ssangbangwool’s transfer of the funds to North Korea.
In a separate case, Lee is accused of committing violations of election laws while campaigning for the presidency in 2022.
There are suspicions that the current head of the opposition was involved in granting special preferences to a hotel operator in the Pundan-gu District of Seongnam in 2015. He is also a suspect in that case.
His wife Kim Hye-kyung, who allegedly used a provincial government credit card for personal purchases, has also come under fire.
Five and a half corpses
The story would be incomplete without commenting on one more unpleasant situation. By now, five people who could have helped the investigators by revealing compromising information about Lee Jae Myung have committed suicide or died under mysterious circumstances.
- Yoo Han-gi, was found dead on December 10, 2021 near his home, having committed suicide. In 2015 he was working as a senior manager of the Seongnam Development Company (SDC) and at the time of his death he was facing charges related to the Seongnamgate affair. Allegedly he had been paid 200 million won ($167 000) in bribes to carry out lobbying activities. He had also been accused of resorting to corruption in order to secure the resignation of the previous General Director of the company, and his own appointment to that position. He committed suicide on the eve of the court hearing in which he was to give evidence.
- Kim Moon-ki was found dead on December 21, 2021, having committed suicide. He had played a key role in removing from the project agreement a clause allowing the municipal government to recover excessive profits from private investors, and he had also helped the developer to win a construction contract in the city’s Daejang-dong district. In October 2021 he was questioned as a witness, but the deaths of two key figures in the Seongnamgate case, made it impossible to prove that Lee Jae-myung was deeply implicated in the corruption scandal. Lee Jae-myung has denied knowing Kim Moon-gi, but there are photos that show Lee posing with Kim during a foreign business trip in January 2015.
- On January 11, 2022 Lee Byung-chul was found dead. He had earlier claimed that the defense lawyers’ fees and court costs incurred by Lee Jae-myung in his 2018 case on alleged violations of election law were actually paid by another person (in effect, an indirect bribe), and had provided investigators with decrypted messages confirming his allegations. Lee Byung-cheol was also a key witness in the case of Lee Jae-men’s proxy payments to the legal team that defended him in a case related to his brother’s hospitalization in a psychiatric institution. After the death of Yoo Han-gi, Lee Byung-cheol had expressed fears for his life, but police said they had found no suspicious circumstances in relation to his death, and the pathologist’s report stated that he had died as the result of a heart condition.
- Kim Hyun-wook died on July 26, 2022. A former military intelligence officer, he could have been a key witness in the prosecution’s case against Kim Hye-kyung, as it was he who had been instructed to use the government credit card to make personal purchases on her behalf. Kim Hyun-wook was also Kim Hye-kyung’s driver. As in the case of Kim Moon-ki, Lee Jae-myung denied that he knew the deceased, but this was later shown to be a lie.
- Jeon Hyung-soo had served as Lee Jae-myung’s chief of staff when he was governor of Gyeonggi Province. On March 10 2023 he committed suicide, and in his suicide note he stated that he had always tried to be an honest servant of the state and “do what he was ordered to”, and, apparently, called on Lee Jae-myung to let go of his political ambitions.
- Furthermore, there could easily have been six bodies – Kim Man-bae 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 police had found no suspicious circumstances in relation to any of the deaths, but with every incident in which possible witnesses against Lee Jae-myung end up dying sooner or later from suicide or natural causes, it becomes more difficult to put the deaths down to coincidence. Cynics claim that following the police reform under Moon Jae-in, local police are very subservient to respected officials in their region, but that is mere conjecture and not evidence. But for both Democrats and Conservatives, everything is “perfectly clear.”
Nevertheless, the investigators have slowly but surely tightened the screws, bringing one charge after another. Lee managed to fend off the first attack, but it was a narrow escape. The margin of one vote showed that both members of other left-wing parties and a significant portion of Democrats had voted in favor of his arrest. And so, while waiting for a second arrest order, he has chosen a different strategy, part of which happens to involve a hunger strike. But that is a subject for another article.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.