The previous series of “trials ended with parliament voting in favor of the head of the Democratic Party of Korea’s (DPK) arrest but a court had to make the ultimate judgment, even though.”
Prosecutors have reportedly prepared more than 1,600 pages of documents to support their criminal allegations that Lee should be arrested. During the voting in the National Assembly on Lee’s detention, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon stated: “The case involving Lee is an orchestrated crime involving multiple individuals and has raised significant concerns about the potential for evidence tampering through coercion or pressure on accomplices and witnesses, given Lee’s political status and the investigation process.”
The minister claimed that Lee Jae-myung and his group forced government officials involved in the Baekhyun-dong project to make false statements and that there were “irrational attempts to destroy evidence” while the DPRK money transfer case was being investigated. Examples of such attempts included DPK members leaking internal prosecution documents and the dubious actions of attorneys representing Lee Hwa-young, a former vice governor of Gyeonggi Province and a significant aide to Lee Jae-myung.
In June, the former vice governor—who had been arrested for his alleged role in the money transfer case—modified his testimony, acknowledging that Lee Jae-myung had in fact informed him about the money transfers and more, even though he had initially denied Lee’s involvement. But later on, Lee Hwa-young modified his evidence once more, saying that Lee Jae-myung had nothing to do with the incident and that the prior statement had been provided under duress from the police. What was not shown was that by this point, Lee’s lawyer had been replaced by a Democrat party member.
Lee Jae-myung made his court appearance on September 26, 2023, to begin the hearing for his arrest on allegations of corruption, breach of trust, and other offenses. It marks the first time that the head of the major opposition party attended a court hearing over an arrest warrant.
Visibly weakened following his hunger strike, Lee arrived outside the court, leaning on a walking stick and refusing to answer questions from the press. Outside the building, a large number of protestors and supporters gathered with signs that said, “Lee Jae-myung is innocent. Reject the arrest warrant,“ or ”Suspect Lee Jae-myung is the ringleader of a criminal group.“
The actual hearing lasted for nine hours and sixteen minutes. Lee Jae-myung has disputed all of the allegations leveled against him. Prosecutors indicated the risk of destroying evidence. It made particular reference to a recording of Lee Hwa-young giving in to pressure from the prosecutor’s office to produce a statement in which he acknowledged that Lee Jae-myung was involved. The defense, for its part, rejected the investigators’ theses based on the lack of such proof.
Lee was taken to the detection room following the hearing, but on the morning of September 27, Chief Judge Yoo Chang-hoon refused to issue an arrest warrant at the Seoul Central District Court. The court supported the charges that Lee was aware of the corruption schemes and, in some cases, directly gave instructions, but found no evidence of the defendant’s direct involvement on all counts and saw no danger in his deletion of evidence.
The court justified its judgment by emphasizing the need to protect the suspect’s right to a fair trial and the impracticality of keeping the lawmaker in custody during the investigation. Furthermore, the court acknowledged that there were reasons to challenge the accusations of corruption in the implementation of the construction project in the Baekhyun-dong area and the transfer of funds to the DPRK (the court specifically mentioned the absence of direct evidence). except for the perjury charges.
The court reached the following conclusion: there are reasonable suspicions and circumstantial evidence in the case, but no facts or clear evidence of Lee Jae-myung’s involvement.
The prosecution’s position was severely damaged after the second effort to apprehend Lee failed. In response, Lee Jae-myung expressed his sincere gratitude to the judiciary on September 27 after the decision to deny the arrest warrant was revealed, calling it the last bastion of human rights protection. The truth is that we should have congratulated not the system as a whole, but rather Judge Yoo, who, as you may recall, had already rejected the arrest warrant for the opposition leader following the outcome of the last National Assembly vote. He also stopped the arrest of a YouTube media owner who was charged with slandering Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, as well as special counsel Park Young-soo, who turned out to be one of the beneficiaries of Seongnam Gate.
Following the announcement of the court’s decision, the Democrats launched an offensive as Lee Jae-myung went back to the hospital to resume his post-hunger strike treatment. “I strongly urge President Yoon to stop using the prosecution to incapacitate politics, and restore politics with an attitude of respecting the National Assembly and the main opposition party,” the DPK’s new floor leader Hong Ihk-pyo said during a supreme council meeting. “And this will begin with the president’s official apology and dismissal of Minister Han.” Other lawmakers also released a statement saying, “The Yoon administration’s tyranny to attempt to kill Chairman Lee has failed” and “the arrest warrant was an act of violence and political persecution to cover up the failures of the administration.”
Attorney General Lee Jong-seok responded by saying that in order to make sure Lee Jae-min receives the appropriate punishment, the prosecutor’s office will look into the criminal allegations against him further. “The prosecution will do its best to seek appropriate punishment commensurate with crimes after carrying out additional investigation into criminal allegations,” the top prosecutor told reporters on the way to his office in southern Seoul.“
“An arrest warrant is nothing more than part of the process of investigating crimes, and the dismissal does not mean innocence,” Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said. Han went on to say that the prosecution will carry out its investigation since the legal system does not and should not become political in the event that a politician commits a crime.
The current ruling People Power Party (PPP) Chairman, Kim Gi-hyeon, expressed his “deepest regret” over the rejected warrant. “Today, it was again revealed that the judiciary was contaminated by some politically motivated judges. The stark reality of judges disregarding even fundamental ethics based on their political inclinations has become apparent to the public.”
The conservative media has also noted that there are too many charges being brought, so Lee isn’t completely protected from the risks of a lawsuit. Yet Lee and the Democratic Party are behaving as if the dismissal of the warrant proved his innocence. In addition, Lee’s accusations of witness tampering carries a lot of weight. According to The Korea Herald, “Lee has avoided arrest, but he has not yet been found innocent. He remains a suspect facing a variety of criminal offenses. It is proper for him and the party to exercise restraint.“
On September 29, Lee Jae-myung offered the president one-on-one meetings: “Let us cease political disputes at least until the regular parliamentary session in December and concentrate on tackling issues on people’s livelihoods.”
On Oct. 6, Lee Jae-myung attended the first court hearing in a lawsuit alleging corruption in Daejang-dong construction projects and Wirye New Town, as well as sponsoring the Seongnam Football Club as mayor of the same city. Lee vehemently refuted allegations that he extended economic favors to private developers during the hearing, reaffirming his long-held belief that the probe is politically driven and the charges are fabricated. “Dozens of prosecutors were mobilized for the investigation of me and hundreds of raids were carried out… They will continue with it again and keep doing it as long as I’m alive, will they not?”
Prosecutors accused Lee Jae-myung on October 12 on counts of abusing his position as mayor of Seongnam, bribery, and other offenses pertaining to property development projects in the Bundang and Baekhyun-dong neighborhoods. Along with him, Lee’s former aide Jeong Jin-sang is on trial.
The prosecutor’s office claims that Lee and Jeong plotted for four years to keep lobbyist Kim In-sop—who is accused of helping the Democratic Party leader in his mayoral campaign—out of an apartment building project instead of a city developer. Consequently, the development project was awarded on favorable conditions to a private investor’s firm called Jeong. This company managed to earn a profit of 136 billion won, of which Kim In-sop kept 7.7 billion won. In response, Seongnam City lost 20 billion won.
Furthermore, the case against Lee Jae-myung for allegedly bribing third parties in connection with illicit money transfers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea via Ssangbangwool Group will be looked into further by investigators. It has since been combined with corruption cases pertaining to the development of the Daejeon-dong area and Wirye New Town construction.
However, that same day saw a significant win for the Democrats in a by-election to choose a new head of Seoul’s Gangseo district, which was generally regarded as a forerunner to the next general election. Even though the author believes they won it on their own land, there is a 20% difference that permits them to describe the People Power Party as having suffered a crushing defeat.
In addition, during Lee Jae-myung’s 2018 trial for breaking election law, he was accused on October 16 with encouraging false testimony. The prosecution’s case rests on claims that during Lee’s 2018 trial on charges of officially breaking election law, Lee forced a former secretary to the mayor of Seongnam to submit a false statement.
Before the trial, the prosecution claims Lee called his former secretary several times asking him to testify in his favor.
On October 18, 2023, Democratic Party rank-and-file members filed a petition for an injunction requesting the dismissal of party leader Lee Jae-myung. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party charter stipulates that a head of the party facing corruption charges may be removed from office if it is determined that there are no political motives behind the accusation. Not everyone agrees with the party establishment, which opted to keep Lee in office after coming to the conclusion that the accusation against Lee was the product of political persecution.
On October 20, the governor of Gyeonggi Province, Former centrist presidential candidate Kim Dong-yeon, who lost the 2022 race to Lee Jae-myung and won the governor election by a slim 0.3% margin, said that he had requested that police look into the possibility that Lee’s wife may have used her husband’s business credit card up to 100 times for personal use while he was the governor of Gyeonggi Province. The Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission has also requested that the case be investigated by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.
Lee Jae-myung resumed his duties as leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, on October 23 following a 24-day hunger strike in protest of the current South Korean administration’s policies and several weeks in hospital. Speaking to the party’s Supreme Council, he claimed that the administration and the ruling party’s incapacity and recklessness pose a threat to the nation’s security and economy. Lee Jae-myung demanded that the president completely restructure his handling of state affairs, called on Yoon Suk-yeol to resign the cabinet due to the “incompetence and aggressive behavior” of its current members, and expressed confidence in the opposition’s victory in the upcoming April 2024 parliamentary election. “I hope there will be no further debate regarding the handling of the arrest motion,” Lee said, emphasizing that the people’s livelihoods should be the top priority.
What is the result? Another attempt to imprison failed, but prosecutors will not give up, and one block of charges will be followed by another, so the serial drama is far from over. Lee Jae-myung would attempt to push back the trial until before the 2024 parliamentary elections, according to conservative media. It is obvious that the Democrats’ reputation will suffer and the election’s result will be impacted if he is found guilty of at least one of the several allegations before April of next year. “However, the pace of the trial is too slow for common sense,” and the simultaneous trial of numerous counts (the opposition leader is currently facing ten charges in seven cases) may result in no decision on the first trial by the deadline next year.
It will also be interesting to see how Lee handles intra-party resistance. The focus is on five lawmakers from a minor party caucus who are thought to have voted in favor of the prosecutor’s office’s motion to arrest Lee (there were more, but these appear to have been correctly identified). The chairman’s supporters are calling for severe punishment for “damaging the party,” but others are urging Lee to seek unity as the party prepares for legislative elections in less than six months. Furthermore, disciplining anti-Lee faction members now may generate unnecessary disruption at a time when the party’s election triumph in Gangseo has secured his leadership.
Furthermore, a Democratic Party victory in a Gangseo district by-election does not reflect a comparable level of Democratic dominance in statewide public opinion. According to a recent Gallup poll in Korea, voter support is almost evenly divided: 34% for Democrats, 33% for Conservatives, and 28% for neither party. As a result, there is still little chance of political rivals meeting.
However, there is some good news. The leaders of the People Power Party and the Democratic Party of Korea met on October 24 and decided to stop criticizing each other in order to enhance legislative culture in the ROK. In doing so, the MPs acknowledged that the National Assembly’s legislative responsibilities are neglected in favor of partisan bickering. Yoon Jae-ok, the floor leader of the People Power Party (PPP), informed reporters that they had come to an understanding not to put up posters disparaging rivals in the plenary hall and standing committee meetings, refrain from verbally abusing one another, and not to interrupt speakers during the meeting.
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”.