Send to

Opposition leader could face arrest as his fate hangs in balance

Sept. 20, 2023 - 15:46 By Son Ji-hyoung
In this photo, Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung (right) is seen holding the hand of former President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday as Lee had to be hospitalized in Jungnang-gu in Seoul on his hunger strike's 20th day. (Joint Press Corps)

A second motion to arrest the main opposition leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung was submitted to the National Assembly on Wednesday, inching closer to a parliamentary vote on Thursday that could determine his fate.

This is the ninth attempt of the government since the last legislative election in May 2020 to push for the arrest of an active lawmaker. Lawmakers have immunity from criminal arrest unless parliament grants approval. Four lawmakers have since been arrested.

An earlier attempt to put Lee in detention in February by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration was voted down by the parliament -- where the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea holds the majority of seats.

Lee, currently on a hunger strike for three weeks to fight the Yoon administration's "destruction of democracy," said on social media Wednesday that the passage of the motion would "aggrandize politically-motivated investigations by the prosecution."

The prosecution reportedly demanded that Lee get a life sentence, given the gravity of the white-collar crimes they allege he committed and Lee's tendency to re-offend, according to the prosecution's request for an arrest warrant and motion submitted to the National Assembly. Lee currently has four criminal records. The prosecution argues that Lee deserves at least an 11-year prison term, taking into consideration the aggravating sentencing factors.

Lee, former prosecutor general Yoon's political rival during the 2022 presidential election who lost by a razor-thin margin, has been facing multiple allegations of involvement in land corruption scandals during the time he served as mayor of Seongnam city and, subsequently, Gyeonggi Province governor in the 2010s, as well as of an unauthorized North Korean money transfer, according to the document.

As Seongnam mayor, Lee allegedly denied the state-run land developer 20 billion won ($15 million) by depriving the public-sector company of the chance to submit a bid in 2015 to build homes on a site in Baekhyeon-dong, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

The site once housed the Korea Food Research Institute, until that was relocated to Wanju County, North Jeolla Province. After the relocation, half of the site was used for a housing supply project led by a private-sector entity, while the rest was given back to Seongnam, which used the land to build a public park and a research and development complex.

The prosecution alleges that Lee allowed a private-sector entity to profit unfairly from the Baekhyeon-dong housing project in exchange for Lee's close aide's secretary committing perjury to do what the close aide, who was lobbying for the private-sector entity, wanted. The perjury during a court trial in 2019 also helped Lee steer clear of accusations that he spread false information.

Additionally, as Gyeonggi Province governor, Lee is alleged to have pressured a private-sector company participating in a North Korean smart farm project to provide funding for the project instead of the provincial government, which was originally responsible for leading the project in 2018. He is also accused of making the company potentially responsible for covering the expenses related to his visits to North Korea from 2019 to 2020. However, both of these initiatives did not materialize due to sanctions imposed on North Korea.

The prosecution deems the unauthorized money transfer of a combined $8 million to North Korea by underwear maker Ssang Bang Wool a breach of the Foreign Exchange Transaction Act. All eyes are on whether Lee was aware of the botched project and the money transfer. Lee's subordinates reported the proceedings of the North Korean project to Lee 17 times, according to media reports citing the prosecution, but Lee denied that he was aware of the North Korea project.

Regardless of the motion, Lee is already standing trial over an alleged breach of trust that denied a state-run developer's financial gains of 489.5 billion won in Daejang-dong, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, which eventually allowed private-sector investors to take 788.6 billion won of illicit gains. He is also accused of soliciting at least 13.3 billion won in contributions to Seongnam's professional soccer team in return for land use deregulation the city later granted to the companies that paid the contributions. Lee is also accused of spreading false information during the presidential election campaign.