20.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Pressure intensifies on Lee Jae-myung

While the leader of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is struggling with an internal party split and denigrating the authorities ahead of the April parliamentary elections, the authorities are responding with a new surge of pressure on high-profile cases concerning both him and other key functionaries of the Democratic Party.

The Case of Song Young-gil

On January 4, 2024, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office filed charges of illegal political finance and bribery against former Democratic Party leader Song Young-gil in connection with the 2021 Party leadership election scandal.

The indictment comes about nine months after an investigation began into allegations that in the run-up to the election, Song’s team distributed cash envelopes totaling 66 million won ($50,366) to lawmakers and others to help fuel his election victory.

Prosecutors suspect that Song received money through illegal political funds totaling 60 million won from businessman and lawmaker Lee Seong-man, who worked on Song’s campaign. Song is also accused of receiving 763 million won in illegal political funds and bribes from 2020 to 2021 through his support group. He has been in prosecution custody since December 18, 2023, and has since boycotted interrogations by the prosecution, claiming his innocence, accusing prosecutors of a “politically orchestrated investigation” against him.

On January 31, 2024, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Yoon Gwan-seok, a lawmaker involved in the case who was an independent (left the DPK as soon as the heat was on), to two years in prison. Yoon was accused of handing out 20 envelopes of cash, each containing 3 million won, to Democratic Party lawmakers shortly before the election. Kang Rae-gu, a former permanent auditor of Korea Water Resources Corporation accused of collaborating with Yoon to facilitate the money, received a one-year, eight-month sentence.

“The guilt for the defendant’s crimes is very heavy, considering that they caused serious damage to public confidence in a democracy based on political parties,” the court said.

On February 29, in a follow-up to the case, the prosecutor’s office filed charges without detention against two Democratic Party lawmakers: Ho Jong-sik and Lim Jong-sung are suspected of receiving 3 million won each from the aforementioned Yoon Gwan-seok in April 2021. Five or seven other lawmakers among the bribe recipients are also under suspicion.

The Ssangbangwool Case

On January 23, 2024, the court granted bail to Kim Sung-tae, the former chairman of underwear manufacturer Ssangbangwool, who was arrested for embezzling 54 billion won and making illegal money transfers to North Korea worth $8 million. His bail was set at 100 million won ($75,000); he will also carry a real-time location tracking device until the end of his trial.

Given Kim’s background as a former criminal mastermind, this could indicate a court deal.

Corruption Cases against Seongnam City Development

On February 13, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Kim In-sob, the former campaign manager of candidate Lee’s campaign for Seongnam mayor, to five years in prison on charges of receiving 7.7 billion won ($5.8 million) and other commercial rights from a real estate development firm in exchange for help in securing administrative control. The plot stems from allegations that the municipal government provided special favors to a private developer in connection with a residential development project in the city’s Baekyeong-dong district between 2015 and 2016.

Prosecutors concluded that Kim illegally lobbied the then-Mayor of Seongnam Lee and one of his aides to have a private developer, Seongnam R&D PFV, selected as the sole partner of the development project, excluding the city’s development agency, Seongnam Development Corp.

This is the first court ruling in a far-reaching development corruption scandal involving Lee.

Kim Man-bae, a key figure behind a scandalous real estate development project in the Daejang-dong area, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on February 14 on bribery charges. Kim was found guilty of offering an 80 million won (US$59,900) bribe to former Seongnam City Council Chairman Choi Yoon-gil, who received 4 1/2 years.

According to the prosecution, Kim, the largest shareholder of Hwacheon Daeyu Asset Management (the company that received 1,200 percent of the profits that settled in the DPK’s black coffers), hired Choi as vice chairman of the asset management company in 2021 with the promise to pay bonuses worth 4 billion won upon completion of the project and 80 million won in salary and cover other expenses. Afterward, in exchange for bribes from Kim, Choi secured a resolution that was seen as crucial to the progress of the Daejang-dong project and which removed Seongnam Development Corp from the project.

This ruling came about two years after the two were indicted.

Despite the prison terms, the court did not place Kim and Choi under immediate arrest, citing the low likelihood of evidence destruction and their good faith attendance at court hearings. This option also indicates that the defendants have begun to work with the investigation, especially Kim, who actually surrendered to authorities after a very bizarre double suicide attempt.

Chairman’s Wife Also Under Fire

On February 14 (a truly sad day for Chairman Lee), the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of a key suspect on charges that Lee Jae-myung’s wife Kim Hye-kyung misused provincial government corporate credit cards several years ago.

The Suwon Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s sentence of 10 months’ suspended imprisonment for a suspect surnamed Pae, guilty of violating election laws by illegally using Gyeonggi provincial government corporate cards in 2021.

Pae, who worked for the Gyeonggi provincial government from July 2018 to September 2021 when Lee was governor, is suspected of spending 104,000 won (US$78) from a Gyeonggi corporate card as Lee’s wife’s protocol secretary to pay for Kim, her driver and lawyer to have lunch with three Democratic Party officials in August 2021, shortly after her husband announced his candidacy for party president. The amount is not very large, but providing meals to election-related individuals is prohibited by the Public Officials Election Law and could be considered a bribe under Kim Yong Ran’s law.

Pae was also accused of making false statements about performing personal duties for the Lee family and obtaining prescription drugs for Kim, and was separately prosecuted on suspicion of buying food using Kengui government corporate cards for Kim’s personal use.

On the same day, Kim Hye-kyung herself was indicted without detention on charges of violating election law over the infamous lunchtime meal.

A New Trail?

On January 31, the Audit and Inspection Bureau reported that in violation of election laws, the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) helped Lee Jae-myung, the then-ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate for the 2022 presidential election, develop Lee’s campaign promises regarding the defense sector. It turned out that in an online chat meeting in March 2021, a certain former Defense Ministry official and member of Lee Jae-myung’s campaign team asked KIDA head Kim Yoon-tae to develop a defense policy for Lee’s use as campaign promises. After that, Kim and some KIDA officials allegedly helped Lee’s aide develop his defense policy platform, including the application of advanced scientific technology.

The bureau asked the Ministry of National Defense to dismiss the head of KIDA and also asked the prosecutor’s office to look into the case. The Defense Department said it was taking steps to remove Kim from his position and select a new head of KIDA. In response, the institute said it would take legal steps against the audit agency’s actions, arguing that Kim was not directly involved in the development of the recommendations.

What can be said about this? First, there is still no direct threat to Lee Jae-myung unless the released defendants testify directly against him, which is not easy given the five witnesses who committed suicide or died over this period of time. However, the case of Song Young-gil, who has already been arrested, is causing reputational damage not only to him but also to the entire Democratic Party, as it turns out that the classic distribution of envelopes with money, which the Democrats liked to posit as a sign of a rotten government, turned out to be characteristic of their own party. Other cases also “bite” the party, although the “chairman’s fan club” safely ignores these accusations, considering them fabricated. The other factor is that for those dissatisfied with Lee, this is an additional reason to leave the party, but about the internal party problems of the DPK – we have to wait for the next text.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at 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

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