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Assembly votes to let court decide on opposition chief’s arrest warrant

In counter-move by Democratic Party, proposal passed to dismiss PM

Sept. 21, 2023 - 18:42 By Kim Arin
Lee Jae-myung supporters gather in a rally as the National Assembly is about the vote on the arrest warrant request for the Democratic Party of Korea leader on Thursday afternoon. (Yonhap)

The National Assembly on Thursday voted to pass the motion for a possible arrest warrant that removed the protective immunity of Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung on day 22 of his hunger strike against the Yoon Suk Yeol administration.

The motion’s passage gives the court the Assembly’s permission to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Lee, who is a criminal suspect in three corruption cases and a defendant in two ongoing criminal trials.

In a plenary session, convened two days after the request for the arrest warrant’s review was submitted by Seoul prosecutors on Monday, the Assembly voted 149 in favor and 136 against, with 10 abstaining, meeting the threshold by just one vote.

This is the second time the Assembly was asked to vote on allowing the court to decide on an arrest warrant for the leader of the South Korea’s main opposition party. In the first vote that took place earlier in February, the motion was struck down by a slim margin, falling short of the minimum threshold of in-favor votes from half of the lawmakers at the session by ten votes.

Thursday’s passage contradicts prior projections that the motion would fail to pass the Assembly, where the Democratic Party has the majority, holding 168 out of 298 seats. By comparison, the ruling People Power Party holds 111 seats, with the rest of the 20 seats occupied by five minor liberal parties and seven independent lawmakers.

It is now up to the court to determine whether Lee, who was admitted to a hospital Monday due to deteriorating health during his hunger strike, is worthy of arrest.

The opposition leader has been on a continuous hunger strike since Aug. 31 in a protest against what he calls Yoon's "destruction of democracy.” As a condition for ending his strike, he has asked that all members of the president’s Cabinet either resign or be dismissed.

While the Ministry of Justice sees the arrest warrant’s request as part of due process under the law, the Democratic Party views it as a politically motivated attack on the party and its leader.

At the same plenary session, a proposal to the president for removing Prime Minister Han Duk-soo passed the Assembly -- the first to be passed against a prime minister under the current Constitution. The majority-controlling Democratic Party had put the proposal to vote in a counter move against the arrest warrant request for its leader. But the possibility of having the prime minister fired is slim, as the president can veto the parliamentary vote.

Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon, speaking at the Assembly session, said that the investigations into the accusations surrounding Lee were from the time long before he was a member of the Assembly.

The minister told reporters that with the arrest warrant request headed to court, Lee would be subject to the “same criminal justice process that any other South Korean citizen would be facing.”

Democratic Party Rep. Park Ju-min, who addressed he Assembly on behalf of bedridden Lee, however, called the criminal investigations facing Lee a “dictatorship by the prosecution service” and an “attack on democracy and the Assembly.”

”For the last year and a half, the Yoon administration’s prosecutors have targeted the investigation Chairperson Lee and our party. Our democracy is in crisis,” he said. “The Assembly faces grave tasks of bringing down the prosecutors’ dictatorship and restore democracy.”

After the motion’s passage was announced, crowds of Lee supporters erupted into riots, which led to the closures of the Assembly gates and at least one exit of a nearby subway station.

The Assembly office had already beefed up security around the gates after acts of violence staged by Lee supporters. Over the weekend, a man was escorted out after brandishing a cutter outside the Democratic Party chair office in an alleged attempt to injure himself. On Thursday, a woman was arrested after she stabbed two police officers with a pair of scissors.

A day ahead of the Assembly vote was due to take place, Lee claimed that passing the request for his arrest warrant would “give wings that prosecutors need to pursue a politically fraught investigation.” In the statement posted on Facebook, he once again accused the prosecutors of being “politically biased.” He said it was not only “completely absurd” for prosecutors to seek his arrest, but also “illegal and unjust.”

Lee’s Wednesday statement was interpreted by some within his own party as an instruction to strike down the motion.

“It’s embarrassing and baffling that now he is asking that the motion be voted down,” Democratic Party Rep. Lee Won-wook told a radio interview Wednesday morning. The three-time lawmaker pointed out that the party leader had previously stated he would give up his immunity from being arrested without majority consent of the Assembly as a sitting lawmaker. “He flipped his stance just like that without an apology,” he said.

As a candidate running for Democratic Party chairpersonship last year, and then several times over the past year as the party’s chair, Lee vowed that he would renounce his Constitutional immunity from being arrested. In a general meeting in July, the Democratic Party established that its lawmakers would do away with their immunity from arrest while in office.

The ruling party leaders issued similar criticisms that the opposition head was not following through with his earlier promise.

Rep. Yun Jae-ok, the ruling party’s floor leader, said in a meeting held ahead of the plenary session on this day that Lee “changed his mind about his immunity being waved after going on a hunger strike without a clear cause other than to apparently dodge his legal troubles.” “To protect the legally embattled chair, the Democratic Party is abusing its majority in the Assembly and pushing a proposal to ask the president to remove the prime minister without any grounds,” he said.

On the Democratic Party threatening to boycott Assembly sessions over the arrest warrant request, the ruling party floor leader said the opposition was “acting like the Assembly should revolve around one person.”

Other key bills such as ones increasing protection of the rights of teachers at public schools succeeded in passing the Assembly also on Thursday. The bills were proposed in response to the recent series of suicides among teachers who allegedly suffered from bullying by parents and students.