The 24-year long political career of the former chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party, Song Young-gil, hangs in the balance after he was arrested over a scandal related to the party’s leadership elections in 2021.
NEO has already written about the situation around this person, but it’s worth recalling. A former mayor of Incheon and a five-term MP, Song was considered one of the most pro-Russian politicians in the Republic of Korea and was part of Moon Jae-in’s inner circle, who in 2017 sent him as a special envoy to the Russian Federation. After Moon became a “lame duck,” Song was viewed as the leader of an independent faction, who, at the same time, paved the way to big politics for Lee Jae-myung, because Lee ran for parliament from “his” constituency.
In 2021, he was elected chairman of the Democratic Party, which was quite an important position in view of the then upcoming March 9, 2022 presidential elections.
However, since the election ended in the victory of Yoon Suk-yeol, he resigned from the party leadership to take responsibility for the defeat. He then renounced his MP status and ran for mayor of Seoul in the 2022 local elections, but suffered a crushing defeat to Oh Se-hoon, receiving 19.82% and falling about 20% behind. After that, he stayed in France as a visiting scholar at the ESCP Business School in Paris.
After the 2024 parliamentary election race had started, Song, on the one hand, actively denounced the regime of Yoon Suk-yeol while, on the other, trying to assemble his own faction within the DPK, which, at the same time, was supposed to include people from Moon’s inner circle.
However, in April 2023, the prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the so-called “money envelope case” in connection with allegations that on the eve of the Democratic Party leadership elections in May 2021, which Song won, people from his campaign “distributed envelopes” totaling 94 million won (71,597 US dollars) to as at least 20 lawmakers and other important persons of the party. The average sum in one such envelope was 3 million won (2,297 US dollars).
It is also alleged that in exchange for business services, Song received bribes in the amount of 40 million won from the former head of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the city of Yeosu through the so-called Scientific Research Institute for Peace and Livelihood. Overall, in 2020-2021, Song received “illegal political funds” worth anywhere from 763 to 820 million won.
Almost immediately after the scandal began, Song returned to Korea, declaring his readiness to answer all the questions. He now denies involvement in any shady dealings, accusing the prosecutor’s office of an illegal investigation for political reasons.
In addition to Song, there are several defendants in the case who are believed to have acted in the interests of Song Young-gil. Park Yong-soo, a former aide to Song who was responsible for managing his campaign fund, was accused of being involved in distributing 67.5 million won of the total amount in collusion with other campaign officials to help Song get elected.
According to the prosecutor’s office, Park allegedly received 50 million won from a businessman in April 2021 and transferred 60 million won to former Democratic Party MP Youn Kwan-suk, who then distributed the money to lawmakers. In addition, envelopes were distributed by another MP, Lee Sung-man.
Park Yong-soo did this in collusion with other party officials, including Kang Rae-gu and Lee Jung-geun, who have already been arrested and charged with bribery and violations of laws on political parties and foundations.
The accusations against the former aide also include the receipt by Song’s sponsorship group of a 92.4 million won bill for a “necessary” public opinion poll conducted on the eve of the party elections.
In late June 2023, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, which is investigating the “money envelope case” (a corruption scandal involving the bribery of Toburo members in the interests of electing Song Young-gil as its chairman in 2021), requested an arrest warrant for Park Yong-soo on charges of violating the law on political parties. According to the prosecution, he participated in a conspiracy to receive and distribute funds for the election of Song Young-gil as the leader of Toburo, and also personally handed over envelopes with money. As a representative of the Prosecutor’s Office said, “Park was deeply involved in the management of funds distributed ahead of the party’s leadership election. It’s a crime that violated the core values of party democracy stipulated in Article 8 of the Constitution.”
On July 3, Park Yong-soo was arrested. The Seoul Central District Court issued an arrest warrant, citing concerns that he could destroy evidence.
On July 10, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office searched the secretariat of the National Assembly to seize entry and exit records of some MPs and employees, including several former employees of Song Young-gil.
On July 14, the prosecutor’s office conducted a search and seizure at the home of the former Song Young Gil’s schedule manager, Lee. It is reported that during the campaign to promote Song to the post of head of the opposition party, Lee was involved in planning, reporting and organizational issues.
On July 25, Song Young-gil publicly accused the President of the Republic of Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, of violating the Law on Elections of Officials and the Law on Political Parties.
According to the politician, the head of state hid and spread false information regarding the arrest of his mother-in-law Choi Eun-soon and the participation of his wife Kim Keon-hee in manipulations with the value of securities, and also (already in the status of president) unreasonably interfered in the congress of the ruling People Power Party. “As President Yoon’s mother-in-law has been detained, it is common sense for the president to reflect on his lies and issue an apology,” Song said in a news conference in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office.
In addition, the funds of the prosecutor’s office allocated for special expenses were allegedly used for the needs of election campaigning during Yoon’s tenure as Prosecutor General.
In connection with the above, Song Young-gil visited the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, where he wrote relevant applications and demanded “the most thorough investigation,” after which he spoke with journalists.
Such a move, according to the author, meant that the evidence against Song became too serious, and instead of making a strong case for his innocence, he went on a counterattack shouting “look who’s talking,” realizing that even if the accusations were spun out of thin air, the bad taste will linger, and his “fans” will be happy to believe anything.
On July 27, the Prosecutor’s office searched the house and office of Park Yong-ha, the former head of the Yeosu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and 13 other locations. The regional business lobby is suspected of illegally donating hundreds of millions of won to the Peace and Livelihood Research Institute, ahead of the party elections when Park served as head of the Chamber.
On August 1, the Prosecutor’s Office requested arrest warrants for Youn Kwan-suk and Lee Sung-man for the second time. As soon as the ground began to smoke under the feet of the lawmakers Youn and Lee, they left the ranks of the Democratic Party, but retained their parliamentary mandates, because immunity is a useful thing. In May 2023, the Prosecutor’s Office requested arrest warrants, but the National Assembly rejected the request for consent to their arrests. However, on the second attempt, the parliament was in recess, and a chance of arrest appeared.
On August 4, Youn Kwan-suk and Lee Sung-man attended a court hearing designed to decide whether to issue arrest warrants for them. “I will sincerely respond to the court hearing and proactively explain myself,” Youn said, while Lee categorically denied the allegations: “I will do my best to explain to the judge how unjust the prosecutor’s application for the arrest warrant is and have the court make a wise decision.”
On August 5, the Seoul Central District Court agreed with the arguments of the Prosecutor’s Office and issued an arrest warrant for Youn Kwan-suk, while issuance of an arrest warrant for Lee Sung-man was rejected. On August 22, Youn Kwan-suk was charged with violating laws on political foundations and parties.
On November 14, 2023, Song Young-gil announced the possibility of creating a new political party and nominating his candidacy for the parliamentary elections in April 2024. According to him, the proposed structure will differ from the Democratic Party Toburo in “thinking and other aspects.”
On December 8, Song Young-gil appeared before the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office for 13 hours of interrogation on charges of bribery and illegal political financing. Song accused prosecutors of “a politically orchestrated investigation” against him as he spoke before entering the Prosecutor’s Office: “Having been unable to manipulate evidence connected to cash envelopes, they have pushed headlong to search and question about 100 people around me and open separate investigations.”
Then Song stated that it would be futile to explain himself in front of prosecutors, hinting that he would use his liberty to remain silent during the questioning, which he did throughout the interrogation. After the interrogation, he accused the Prosecutor’s Office of political persecution and an attempt to spoil the reputation of Toburo on the eve of the April 2024 parliamentary elections.
On December 13, the Prosecutor’s Office requested an arrest warrant for Song Young-gil; as its representative stated, “Using his political status, Song received a lump sum of illegal political funds and provided them to buy out voters.”
On December 18, the Seoul Central District Court issued an arrest warrant for Song Young-gil — the hearing lasted more than six hours, and the politician was taken into custody late in the evening.
Thus, one of the key leaders of the Democratic Party, who even tried to play his own games, is highly likely to be leaving big politics.
To what extent will Song’s arrest shake the position of the Democrats? It is expected that Song’s detention will accelerate the expansion of the investigation by the prosecutor’s office, accelerate the pace of the investigation and may have a significant impact on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in April 2024. On the one hand, this is a rather unpleasant reputational damage, because the open distribution of envelopes with money to lawmakers so that they vote for the right candidate is something that Democrats constantly accused conservatives of (and often rightfully so). On the other hand, since Song was planning a solo career in many ways, it will hit the key party figures of the Democrats, who are “tied” to Lee Jae-myung, to a lesser extent. It is no coincidence that the media under Lee’s control almost did not speak out on this issue.
As for the complaint against Yoon Suk-yeol, which Song filed as a counterattack, the Prosecutor’s Office will not immediately launch an investigation against Yoon, since the Constitution grants the president immunity from criminal prosecution during his tenure, except in cases of rebellion or treason. Even if charges are brought against the President, the legal effect of the indictment will be suspended until the end of his term of office.
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”.