09.06.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will Lee Jae-myung serve jail time under the new parliament?

Lee Jae-myung

As we have noted many times, in the run-up to the April 10, 2024, parliamentary elections, opposition leader Lee Jae-myung fought not only for the success of the Democratic Party of Korea, which he leads, but also for his personal freedom, as he is a defendant in several well-founded criminal cases. Lee emerged victorious, retaining the situation he occupied under the last parliament.

The Democrats and their allies won almost two thirds of the vote, but the infighting within the Democratic Party between Lee’s supporters and other factions is not over. The criminal cases against Lee have not been dropped either, and if a verdict is reached in just one of them then his political career will be in jeopardy. It will therefore be interesting to look at the prospects for the investigation into Lee and his associates, both as they appeared before the election and as they appear now.

Actions of the investigators in late 2023 and early 2024.

On November 30, 2023, Kim Yong, a close aide of Lee Jae-myung, was sentenced to five years in prison, ordered to pay a 70-million won fine and forfeit assets worth 670 million won. Kim, the former deputy head of the opposition Democratic Party’s main think tank, the Democracy Institute, was charged with receiving illegal political funds from a real estate developer in 2021 in connection with the Seongnamgate scandal, and taking 190 million won ($147,115) in bribes in 2013-14 from Yoo Dong-gyu, a former high-ranking official of the Seongnam Urban Development Corporation, in exchange for business services related to the project. Prosecutors have requested a 12-year prison sentence for Kim. 

On Dec. 4, 2023, law enforcement officers conducted a search at the Gyeonggi provincial government office as part of an investigation into allegations that Lee Jae-myung’s wife illegally used a government credit card for personal purposes while Lee was governor of Gyeonggi Province from 2018-2021. Another defendant in the case, a former administration official known only by her surname, Bae, was sentenced to 10 months in prison, suspended for two years.

Closer to the election, however, the investigators’ zeal declined somewhat. This is natural – any attempt to put Lee in jail right before the election or otherwise increase pressure on him would generate opposition and would be more likely to bring additional votes to the Democrats.

Therefore, citing his duties as party leader, Lee attended court hearings only when it suited him, with the result that on March 19, the court issued a warning that it might consider issuing a subpoena requiring him to attend. In response, Lee’s side asked the court for permission to absent himself from hearings until the parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for April 10. The court denied the request, stating that court hearings should not be held when dealing with political issues, especially since some witnesses refused to testify in Lee’s absence. As a result, on April 9, the eve of the election, before entering the court, Lee Jae-myung actually held a pre-election meeting on an official non-campaigning day.

In addition, on March 12 Lee won in an important case. In 2006, his nephew, surnamed Kim, stabbed his girlfriend and her mother to death after the girl told him she was breaking up with him. The Supreme Court sentenced Kim to life imprisonment, and Lee, as a lawyer, defended his nephew during the first two stages of court proceedings. During the presidential race, the story resurfaced, and, seeking to justify his conduct, Lee Jae-myung wrote online that a relative had committed serious “dating violence” and that he, Lee, had been forced to defend him in court because of the economic hardship faced by his relative’s family. The victim’s family then filed a lawsuit demanding 100 million won ($76,310) in compensation, accusing Lee of “describing the gruesome multiple killings as dating violence.”

The district court ruled in Lee’s favor, finding that the phrase “dating violence,” did not misrepresent the harm caused by his nephew’s crime, nor did it prejudice the bereaved family. So now it seems it is okay to describe the killing of a girl who dared to end a relationship as a kind of “dating violence”.

Following this hearing, the investigation shifted its focus to the conduct of Lee’s associates. On March 21, prosecutors searched the office of former Supreme Court Justice Kwon Soon-il for evidence relating to the Seongnamgate case. According to the prosecutors, Hwacheon Daeyu (the main company involved in the case) illegally promised 5 billion won (US$3.8 million) each to several former high-ranking government officials.

According to investigators, Kwon failed to register as a lawyer with the Korean Bar Association after he retired in 2020, but nevertheless acted as an adviser to Kim Man-bae, the largest shareholder of Hwacheon Daeyu and person who would benefit the most from the completion of the development project. Kim Man-bae almost became the sixth key witness to commit suicide. He is currently serving two and a half years in prison for bribery.

Kwon is also suspected of playing a key role in the court case relating to Lee Jae-myung’s violation of the law on state officials. Lee had been, once again, accused of violating election laws in exchange for a financial reward. However, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and found Lee not guilty, with Kwon’s vote being the deciding vote. It is believed that in exchange for this, Hwacheon Daeyupaid Kwon, who was no longer acting as the company’s legal adviser, the sum of 150 million won.

On April 8, 2024, the prosecution demanded a 15-year prison sentence and a 1 billion won ($738,000) fine for former vice governor of Gyeonggi Province Lee Hwa-young, in a case involving the illegal transfer of $8 million to the DPRK with the assistance of Kim Sung-tae, former head of the Ssangbangwool Group. He is charged with bribery, violation of the laws on foreign exchange transactions and political funding.

In May and June 2023, Lee told prosecutors that in exchange for services, he had asked Kim’s firm to pay money for a trip to North Korea by Lee Jae-myung, his boss, and that Lee was aware of this arrangement. It is true that he later claimed that his testimony about Lee Jae Myung’s involvement had been given under duress, but there was clear evidence that he had handed over the money, and if it is confirmed that he acted on the orders of the boss, then Lee Jae-myung will be charged again.

…and after the April 10 election

There are two opposing views on what may happen to Lee, who is the Democratic Party Chairman, under the new parliament. One view is that “prosecutors are human beings,” and that only a “procedural fanatic” like Yoon Suk-yeol would to try to accuse a potential president without fearing for their own future. That would rule out at least some of the investigators. The other view is that now that they have been defeated on the parliamentary front, the prosecutors may go on the offensive on the criminal front. The Democrats’ victory and their plans for law enforcement reform would effectively defang prosecutors, and they therefore have a lot to fight for.

In this context, its worth considering the claim that in the meeting between Yoon and Lee, in addition to the published agenda, the two sides discussed a secret deal in which the government would drop the criminal cases against Lee if Lee agreed to stop “rocking the boat”. The present author is skeptical about this claim, firstly, because it would be impossible to stop such a deal being leaked to the media, and secondly because Lee Jae-myung came to that meeting as a winner, and such a deal would look like a sign of weakness to him. President Yoon also has an uncompromising character, as his performance as attorney general testifies. Therefore, the present author considers that the likelihood of them having entered into a secret deal is very low.

Has the government started to back down? It would be easy to draw that conclusion following the release of Kim Yon on bail on May 8, 2024 after spending only 160 days in custody. But his release on bail is due to the fact that after the verdict he filed an appeal, and while the appeal is pending, Kim is legally treated not as a convicted person but as a defendant, who has the right to stay in is own home. Prior to his November sentencing, he was also free on bail.

Other movements rather suggest that the prosecutors’ grip is not loosening. Firstly, on April 17, 2024. Lee Hwa-young claimed that in June 2023 he took part in a meeting in the “video analysis room” at the prosecutor’s office, where he was served alcohol and was tricked into saying that he was involved in sending money to North Korea. To back up his words, he drew a plan of the interior of office No. 1313, where the alleged drinks meeting with an investigator and a prosecutor took place, and also a plan of the interior of the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office.

It is true that Lee had previously claimed that he had had drinks with Kim Sung-tae and prosecutors in a warehouse building across the street from the prosecutor’s office, and that employees from Kim’s firm brought food, including salmon sashimi, to the meeting. However, the investigators refuted this, stating that “on June 30, according to data mentioned by Lee’s lawyer, Lee had a meal in a detention center.” Lee’s lawyers then changed the date June 30 to July 3, and replaced “warehouse” with “room for recording statements”.

The prosecutor’s office categorically denies all of Lee Hwa-young’s allegations, calling them false, and says it is considering filing a lawsuit. However, when asked to review the feed from their video surveillance system, the agency responded that the cameras were installed only in the corridors and that the data was only retained for 30 days.

As a result, Lee Jae-myung has remained silent on the matter, although members of the Democratic Party have visited the Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office and threatened to conduct a special investigation, and media outlets have called on Lee and his lawyers to specify the exact date of the drinks meeting, while also insisting that investigators should provide objective evidence rather than threaten a lawsuit. As one editorial puts it: “The suspicion that prosecutors tried to cajole Lee Hwa-young to accept his accountability will not likely subside soon. The prosecution denied Lee and his lawyer’s allegations based on testimonies by its own staff only. If Lee’s allegation is proven true, the prosecution made a serious mistake. But if the prosecution’s claim is true, Lee and the majority party must bear grave responsibility for committing injustice.”

Secondly, Lee’s supporters, such as National Assembly Deputy Park Chang-dae have proposed that Lee Hwa-young and his associates should be investigated not by the ordinary prosecutors office but a special prosecutor with extraordinary powers. “The investigation conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office is rife with illegal actions and procedural irregularities… Ultimately, the National Assembly needs to be involved.

 Of course, such an independent legal investigation would be led by a Democrat, thus replacing a possible bias in one direction with a clear bias in the other direction. We have already seen what happened to Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo, who investigated corruption allegations against Park Geun-hye and then found himself in the crosshairs of the anti-corruption campaign conducted in response to the Seongnamgate scandal.

It is important to note that the Democrats want to appoint a special prosecutor not only to whitewash their own man, but also to attack their opponents. The first victim of such an attack is likely to be Kim Keon-hee, the current President’s wife – but we will deal with Yoon Suk-yeol’s own household scandal in a separate article.

And Democratic Party leader Lee can take comfort in the fact that on April 28, he was awarded a “gold play button” by YouTube after his channel had reached the 1 million subscriber mark. By comparison, US President Joe Biden has about 840,000 subscribers while former President Barack Obama has about 590,000. Lee is the first Korean politician to reach this milestone. Since he launched his YouTube channel on May 14, 2014, he has uploaded a total of 2,711 videos. His channel has had over 230 million views.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of 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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