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Lee Jae-myung's arrest reprieve emboldens opposition fightback

Court's rejection bolsters DP's counterattack against 'oppressive investigation,' further escalating political standoff

Sept. 27, 2023 - 12:57 By Ji Da-gyum
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaks to the press as he walks out of a detention facility on the outskirts of Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap - Joint Press Corps)

Lee Jae-myung, the leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, returned from the brink of a legal crisis as the court dismissed an arrest warrant request linked to corruption charges filed against him early Wednesday.

The request, had it been approved, would have seen Lee become the first incumbent opposition leader in South Korea's history to be arrested.

The Seoul Central District Court's rejection marks a substantial setback in the prosecution’s efforts to place Lee in custody as part of an investigation into the allegations against him. A request for the warrant was made after parliament, which has a Democratic Party majority, voted to remove the opposition leader’s immunity from arrest.

The Democratic Party breathed a sigh of relief as it successfully avoided the worst-case scenario of having its leader arrested, with only six months remaining until the next general election in which it aims to maintain its majority in parliament.

The ruling People Power Party, which had hoped to turn the tide with Lee’s arrest and use it as momentum to strengthen its offensive for the upcoming election, expressed regret over the court’s decision, stating that “justice was lost” and “the decision was biased.”

The ruling party has been focusing its efforts into winning the Gangseo Ward Office by-election in Seoul on October 11 as a litmus test to gauge public sentiment ahead of the general election in April.

With the arrest reprieve strengthening the Democratic Party's counterattack to accuse the prosecution of “oppressive investigation,” the political standoff between the ruling and opposition parties is expected to intensify.

Pressing issues such as contentious legislative bills in the regular parliamentary session, the Oct. 6 vote on the nomination of Lee Kyun-yong as chief justice of the Supreme Court, confirmation hearings for ministerial nominees as well as the annual audit sessions, are expected to lead to sharp conflicts in the coming days.

The court made the decision following a lengthy nine-hour arrest hearing, which was attended by the opposition leader.

In a statement, the court said “it is difficult to find sufficient grounds or the need for detention that would supersede the principle of non-detention during the investigation.”

The court cited the “necessity to safeguard the defendant’s right to a defense and the level of concern regarding potential evidence destruction” as the primary grounds for rejecting the prosecution’s request for an arrest investigation.

As Lee left a detention center after the court’s rejection, he said the judiciary has “manifestly proved that it is the last bastion of human rights.”

The rejection of the arrest warrant is expected to solidify Lee’s position within the party, according to some political observers who pointed to the party’s pick of its new floor leader Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo, a member of a pro-Lee faction within the party.

After winning an interparty election Tuesday, Hong said that he is committed to ensuring unity within the Democratic Party and urged the party to “carry this momentum forward to victory in next year’s general election with Lee Jae-myung as its leader.”

Despite the court’s rejection and Lee’s close aide joining the party leadership, the main opposition, however, faces the possibility of internal discord.

The anti-Lee faction within the Democratic Party had consistently called for the embattled chief’s resignation prior to next year’s general election due to mounting concerns about “judicial risks” associated with him. A number of its lawmakers last week cast votes to approve the prosecution’s request to arrest him, defying the party leadership's orders to vote it down.

Legal proceedings, including the ongoing trials, on Lee are still pending, and the judicial risks have not yet been entirely eliminated.

Lee has “resolved the risk of an arrest investigation,” but judicial risks still persist, Rep. Kim Jong-min reiterated during an interview with CBS. Kim suggested that Lee should contemplate whether it would be prudent for him to continue in his current role as the party leader, given that he has trials to attend.

In the right photo, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea's new floor leader Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo and other members applause as the court rejected the arrest warrant for its leader Lee Jae-myung. On the left, members of the ruling People Power Party, including party Chairman Kim Gi-hyeon, protest the justice's decision at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

According to the arrest warrant request submitted by Seoul prosecutors, Lee is facing three separate allegations that he showed bias in development projects, transferred funds to North Korea and coerced false testimony in an earlier trial.

Lee is suspected of allowing private developers to profit improperly from a city project while he was mayor of Seongnam. Prosecutors also claim that he used illegal means to pay North Korean authorities to organize his trip to Pyongyang while he was governor of Gyeonggi Province.

Additionally, Lee faces charges of coercing a witness into providing false testimony during his trial for disseminating false information in a televised election debate for the 2018 Gyeonggi Province governor election and violating the election law.

The court affirmed the validity of the perjury charge, but it found that there is potential for dispute regarding the first and second charges.

In the case of the first charge, the court noted a “reasonable suspicion of the defendant’s involvement” in the development project; however, it pointed out the absence of direct evidence to substantiate the allegation. Similarly, the court highlighted the lack of conclusive evidence indicating Lee’s direct involvement in the illegal fund transfer to North Korea.

After the court’s decision, Lee said, “I would like to express my profound gratitude to the judiciary for steadfastly upholding the constitutional order and delivering a judicious decision.”

However, Lee also asserted that the prosecution’s pursuit of an arrest is a consequence of a political campaign aimed at singling him out.

“It is imperative for both the ruling and opposition parties, along with the government, to re-orient themselves toward the fundamental essence of politics: a competition to ascertain who can most effectively fulfill their responsibilities in serving the people and advancing the nation, rather than being ensnared in battles aimed at destroying and eliminating opponents,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, Prosecutor General Lee One-seok said Wednesday that the prosecution will continue its efforts to substantiate the allegations against Lee Jae-myung.

“A trial has not yet begun, and I will conduct a thorough review of the investigative progress and future plans with the frontline investigative team.”

The chief prosecutor explained that there were significant disparities in viewpoints between the prosecution and the court regarding the decision on whether to conduct an arrest investigation into the Democratic Party’s leader and the reasons behind it.

The court's paramount concern in this case has been to safeguard the defendant’s right to a defense, particularly considering his role as a party representative, despite recognition of the evidence and allegations related to the crimes.

The prosecution maintains that it is difficult to accept such an argument and that, as the incumbent party representative, Lee is subject to public oversight and criticism, and that this serves as a basis for dismissing concerns about evidence tampering.

“The decision to issue an arrest warrant is an intermediate step in the criminal investigation process, and the decision on chairperson Lee does not imply his innocence (as it corresponds to) the charges,” Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said on Wednesday.

“The prosecution has conducted a fair investigation in this case thus far, and I have confidence that they will continue to do so in the future.”