The previous series of trials of the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) ended with him indicating his readiness for trial; before that he had miraculously escaped arrest during the parliamentary vote. However, the prosecutor’s office began preparing a second arrest warrant as part of an investigation into the development of the Baekhyeon-dong neighborhood of Seongnam (as mayor) and the illegal transfer of funds to the DPRK (as governor of Gyeonggi). We specifically covered the details of these cases in a separate piece so as not to recount them again here.
On August 1, 2023, the Democratic Party Committee established to criticize the Yoon Suk Yeol administration for its “dictatorship through prosecution” revealed the names of the four prosecutors investigating Ssangbangwool. The posting of such information on the Internet was followed by scathing comments against the prosecutors, up to and including, “Let’s eradicate this diabolical group!”
On August 17, Lee Jae-myung appeared before the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office for questioning as a suspect in the Baekhyeon-dong case for the fourth time this year. The interrogation session ran about thirteen and a half hours. On his way out of the prosecutor’s office after the interrogation, he stated, “this is a fabricated investigation by political prosecutors trying to fabricate non-existent crimes to cover up their own shameful deeds.”
Lee also said that if prosecutors request a warrant for his arrest during the National Assembly session, he would not use his parliamentary immunity. “If you request a warrant for my arrest while investigating the ridiculous fabrications made against me, I will voluntarily appear and face trial. I guarantee that the national assembly will not be called separately to protect me…”
Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating that Lee Jae-myung may be criminally prosecuted in the case involving the transfer of $8 million to North Korea by Ssangbangwool CEO Kim Sung-tae: allegedly, in his latest testimony, arrested Vice Governor Lee Hwa-young and other defendants began claiming that Lee knew about this action and that he, in fact, supervised the project.
On August 22, the prosecutor’s office charged Lee Jae-myung with bribery with a third party in the above case. Thus, the politician’s status in the case changed from a witness to a suspect. Lee called the decision “absurd” and did not answer reporters’ questions.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Kim Sung-tae told a court hearing on August 22 that he donated about 150 million won (US $112,500) to Lee during the Democratic Party presidential primaries, even though the Political Funds Act sets the maximum amount that can be donated to a candidate at 10 million won per person. To circumvent the law, Kim divided the donation into many small amounts and sent them on behalf of many people, including company employees.
On Aug. 31, during a press conference marking one year since Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung took office, he announced the beginning of an indefinite hunger strike to protest “against the incompetent and cruel regime” of Yoon Seok Yeol, which he said is damaging the constitutional order and democracy and destroying people’s lives. Lee said the government has abdicated its responsibility to protect the people by ignoring people’s safety concerns over the release of radioactive water into the ocean in Japan and causing division in society by portraying respected independence fighter Hong Beom-do as a communist.
In this statement, the head of the Democrats made three demands: an apology by Yoon Suk Yeol to the people “for depriving them of their livelihoods and destroying democracy,” an expression by the head of state of disagreement with Tokyo’s actions in dumping water from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean, and a drastic reshuffle of the Cabinet. He called the accusations and suspicions levelled against him a “political order” of the ruling camp, on whose instructions, in his view, the Prosecutor’s Office is acting.
The conservative media immediately called Lee’s hunger strike “senseless” and “absurd,” and from the author’s point of view, all three demands were absolute demagoguery. There is no drastic drop in living standards; there is no evidence of any destruction of democracy, and the danger from Japan’s radioactive water release is exaggerated by the Democrats, with the government working on the issue and none of the ministers mired in the Cho Guk class scandal are on record demanding his removal. And yes, Hong Beom-do WAS a communist. But this beautiful move shifted attention away from the question “what did Lee Jae-myung accomplish in his one-year presidency”?
On September 1, Lee Jae-myung notified the prosecutors’ office of his intention to appear for questioning in the case of illegally transferring money to the DPRK on the morning of September 4. However, investigators objected to this, stating that the questioning would continue in accordance with the approved schedule of the investigation, i.e., possibly all day.
On September 7, the text of a handwritten note by Lee Hwa-young, the former vice governor of Gyeonggi Province who is now in custody, was published (his lawyer provided it to the media), claiming that his recent change of testimony about Lee Jae-myung’s involvement in the illegal transfer of funds to the DPRK was made under constant pressure from the Prosecutor’s Office. In fact, neither he personally nor the Gyeonggi Provincial Administration ever asked Kim Song-tae to transfer the $8 million cash to North Korea. He also said that the verdict he made under psychological pressure from the prosecution went against his conscience, which he regretted. Earlier, during the court hearing where Lee Hwa-young was present, his wife made an emotional speech and publicly urged her husband to come to his senses, accusing the investigators of pressuring him.
The investigators, however, said that they had enough other objective evidence and therefore it didn’t change anything. The problem is that this pressure must also be proved, and while there is no trial yet, such a paper is designed only to energize the support group.
On September 9, Lee Jae-myung appeared for questioning, which lasted about 8 hours and was suspended at the insistence of Lee Jae-myung himself, who cited his health condition – it was the tenth day of his hunger strike.
After arriving at the prosecutor’s office, Lee told reporters that the truth cannot remain hidden forever, although the government may be able to fabricate a case. After the interrogation, he said on social media that he “tried to do business with the North for humanitarian support and exchanges when he was governor of Gyeonggi, but did not provide or request to provide money and goods to the North in violation of South Korean laws and United Nations sanctions.“
On September 12, Lee came in for questioning again, reiterating to reporters that he was “not stupid enough to commit such a serious crime by forcing a corrupt businessman to pay so much money to North Korea for me,” and the investigation team “could not come up with a single piece of evidence.” Given his health on the thirteenth day of his hunger strike, the interrogation lasted 1 hour and 50 minutes (including time to review documents and points of contention, he stayed at the prosecutor’s office for over four and a half hours.)
On the other hand, there is one more unpleasant additional accusation that, if brought to the end, will hit Lee Jae-myung very hard. It concerns Kim Man Bae, a figurehead of “Sonnamgate,” Lee’s confidante and a suicidal loser. Six days before the 2022 presidential election, Kim Man Bae gave money to a journalist, as democratic as he was yellow, to publish an interview in which he said that not only Lee Jae-myung, but also, incredibly, Yoon Seok Yeol, who covered up for the fraudsters, was involved in “Sonnamgate.” This story was reprinted by the entire Democratic press, and perhaps the narrow margin by which Yoon won was due to this. Now, the journalist is being followed, because if it was really this way, we have a classic example of planting fake news to manipulate the will of the voters in a presidential election. The Democrats, of course, went unacknowledged because, it turns out, the money was given in payment for some books by a journalist.
On Sept. 13, Lee Jae-myung moved the site of his hunger strike from his tent in front of the National Assembly building to his office due to his deteriorating health. According to lawmaker Jeong Joon-ho, “His body temperature, blood sugar level and blood pressure are not serious abnormalities, but his body functions have decreased due to hypothermia… Since yesterday, his irregular heartbeat has increased. Given that he has lost considerable weight, medical personnel plan to monitor him more frequently.”
On the morning of September 18, the nineteenth day of the hunger strike, Lee Jae-myung was admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital with dizziness and a sharp drop in blood sugar. He reportedly did not lose consciousness but began to show signs of delirium, prompting an ambulance to be called. Even there, Lee Jae-myung expressed his desire to continue his hunger strike.
An ambulance was also called on September 17 after medical personnel concluded that Lee needed immediate medical attention, but the chairman refused to go to the hospital.
On the same day, Sept. 18, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office’s 1st Anti-Corruption Investigation Division requested a warrant for Lee Jae-myung’s pre-trial detention on charges of breach of trust, perjury, bribery involving third parties and violation of the Foreign Exchange Act. As part of the charge, investigators combined two cases of corruption in the Baekhyong-dong neighborhood development and illegal transfer of funds to the DPRK with the participation of the head of Ssangbangwool.
The arrest warrant stated that sending $8 million dollars to North Korea was “a serious crime that threatens the security of the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the world” because “the money could be used to promote the North’s weapons.” The prosecution said this crime deserved a life sentence.
In response, the Democrat Party submitted a motion to the National Assembly for the resignation of Prime Minister Han Dok-soo. It turns out that “the Prime Minister failed to properly recommend cabinet nominees in the face of total state chaos (really!! Total chaos looks very different!!) and coordinate state affairs.” At the same time, the Democrats announced a boycott of the main work of Parliament.
On September 19, the twentieth day of the hunger strike, Lee Jae-myung was visited in the hospital by former President Moon Jae-in. The two men talked for 23 minutes. Moon urged Lee to end the protest. Earlier, Lee Nak-yon, the former DPK chairman who was Lee’s main rival during last year’s presidential primary, made similar suggestions. The ruling party also called on Lee to end the protest, citing his health condition. Kim Gi-hyeon, chairman of the People’s Force, said, “With all due respect, I ask the DPK chairman to end the protest regardless of the reasons.”
On the same day, September 19, Yoon Suk Yeol signed a petition requesting Parliament’s consent to Lee Jae-myung’s arrest.
On September 20, Lee Jae-myung suddenly changed his stance. Previously, he had publicly stated that he was ready for trial, but now he wrote another large Facebook* post in which he called for a vote against his arrest, thus breaking his earlier promise not to resist. He justified this by saying that times have changed: “Approving this clearly illegal and unjust arrest motion will only add fuel to the fire of a trumped-up investigation into a political charge,” and, “If the noose is on the wrong person, it must be broken.“
Conservatives immediately noted that by asking lawmakers to reject his detention hearing, Lee had nullified both his presidential campaign promises and more recent statements. While his offenses occurred when he was mayor of Sonnam and governor of Gyeonggi Province, they have nothing to do with the Democratic Party and the National Assembly, which has been defending him for two years to the detriment of all.
On Sept. 21, the National Assembly was to vote anonymously on two separate motions to arrest opposition leader Lee Jae-myung and resign Prime Minister Han Dok-soo. Recall that by law, members of Parliament are protected from arrest during the session and can only be arrested with the consent of the National Assembly.
In parallel with the voting, supporters of the chairman planned to get 100,000 people to take to the streets, showing on whose side the real majority is. And in order to scourge the traitors, a special website was created, which collects the list of deputies who at least once publicly promised to vote against the arrest of the opposition leader. Accordingly, all those who are not on the list are potential traitors.
The Democrats had 167 seats in the parliament out of 297. Formally, they had an overwhelming majority, but last time, remember, 138 votes were cast in favor of the arrest and 139 against: the gap of one vote and the fact that at least 30 members of the Democratic Party voted in favor of the arrest was a very significant alarm bell.
With regard to the prime minister, the Democrats voted as expected: 175 votes in favor, 116 against, and four abstentions. This case was the first time in Korea’s constitutional history that the Parliament made such a decision. Previously, the National Assembly had always rejected proposals for the resignation of prime ministers. However, the last word rests with the country’s president, who is likely to refuse.
As for Lee’s arrest – it came out very unpleasant for the Democrats. 149 deputies voted for the arrest of the opposition leader, 136 voted against it, 6 abstained, 4 votes were not counted. This arrangement means that, as last time, from 29 to 39 votes of the representatives of the Democratic Party were against their chairman.
It is noteworthy that 148 votes were required to pass the decision to strip Lee of his parliamentary immunity, so, like last time, there was a “one-vote gap”.
Understandably, after this vote, the Democrat Party leadership (parliamentary faction leader Park Kwang-on and others) took full responsibility for what had happened and resigned, further fueling the fire of the conflict between factions of Lee Jae-myung’s supporters and opponents. At a meeting of the party’s Supreme Council, lawmaker Jeong Jong-rae criticized those who voted against Lee for “despicably betraying (the party) and pushing Lee into a den of vice by denying him after he was elected to office with overwhelming support… They will constantly try to shake his leadership, but we members of the Supreme Council will continue to stand by his side.” According to Democratic Party spokesman Lee So-young, “We are very surprised and shocked. The leadership asked members to vote against the motion, but we regret that the results were different.”
Jung Sung-ho, another lawmaker close to the chairman, told an MBC radio program that Lee should not step down even if he were to fulfill the role behind bars. “His resignation would throw the party into chaos as he is supported by 70 to 80 percent of the DPK’s supporters.”
Lee’s radical supporters (a maximum of five thousand instead of the promised one hundred) even tried to storm the Assembly building after the vote, waving placards reading “Arrest the lawmakers who supported the motion”. This led to physical confrontations with law enforcers; additional police were called in to help and one of the protesters was arrested. As all the events took place around 5 p.m., traffic in the area was effectively paralyzed.
On September 22, Lee called on all party members and the public to unite against the “dictatorship of prosecutors,” saying that he would do his best to improve the party through reforms: hence, he was not going to resign. In his view, the Democratic Party is the political force that should fight against the tyranny and dictatorship of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, and if the Democratic Party or its beloved chairman falls, it will lead to the usurpation of power by the conservatives, increase political oppression and pressure, destroy democracy and the middle class, etc.
On September 23, Lee Jae-myung agreed to end his 24-day hunger strike, one day longer than former President Kim Young-sam, who in 1983 (also a Democratic Party leader) went on a hunger strike to protest the dictatorship of the Jeong Doo-hwan regime.
So, what now? The Seoul Central District Court has scheduled a hearing on the arrest of the Democratic Party chairman for Sept. 26. The decision will be made by Judge Yoo Chang-hoon, who has already rejected an arrest warrant for opposition leader Lee Jae-myung following last week’s National Assembly vote. He also prevented the arrest of Park Young-soo, the special prosecutor in the Park Geun-hye case who was one of the beneficiaries of “Sonnamgate,” and the owner of YouTube media who was accused of slandering Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon.
In any case, the country is facing a political crisis. Satisfying the demands of the prosecutor’s office will significantly increase the chances of bringing Lee to criminal responsibility (on the aggregate of the charges he faces from 11 to years, or even life imprisonment, if it is proved that he financed the DPRK for ideological reasons) and will deal a serious blow to the reputation of the Democrats. On the other hand, refusal to arrest will lead to a new round of sentiments about “violent suppression of the opposition by the authorities,” which may eventually lead to the suspension of the investigation and the collapse of the case.
The election of the new leadership of the PDK, judging by the composition of registered candidates, is likely to keep Lee’s supporters in power, and where his opponents will go is an interesting question against the backdrop of the April parliamentary elections. A split in the party would weaken all Democrats. The people are more likely to be pro-arrest, but polarization is high. In a Gallup 18-20 September poll, 46% of respondents favored the arrest of Lee Jae-myung. 37% opposed the move, saying it was “unfair political oppression.”
What does the author have to say about this? When Lee went on hunger strike, the author realized that things were not going well for him. Previously, the opposition leader had been quite vocal in proclaiming his innocence and putting out in the public domain multi-page documents that were supposed to prove that innocence. Then (and perhaps under the influence of new evidence), he first tried to play on the image of a victim, and then got so scared that he spit on his past promises. This created serious reputational damage, the concrete consequences of which we will discuss in the next piece, when the question of whether the head of the opposition will move from parliament to prison becomes clearer.
*-is banned in Russia
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.”