Will Lee Jae-myung waiving his immunity from arrest give Democrats the leg-up they need?

Posted on : 2023-06-20 17:39 KST Modified on : 2023-06-20 17:39 KST
The surprise move can be seen as an attempt to break down the ruling camp’s strategy ahead of next year’s general election
Lee Jae-myung, leader of the top opposition Democratic Party, gives a speech at the National Assembly on June 19. (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-myung, leader of the top opposition Democratic Party, gives a speech at the National Assembly on June 19. (Yonhap)

Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, announced on Monday that he would give up his metaphorical “bulletproof vest” of immunity from arrest. The unanticipated move comes following a year of Lee being dogged by controversy that he ran for office despite judicial risks in order to obtain the immunity granted to lawmakers.

This can be seen as an attempt to break down the ruling camp’s strategy ahead of next year’s general election, which has been to attack the Democratic Party as “bulletproof.” Moreover, some say Lee is leading by example by clearing away stumbling blocks against reform before the launch of his party’s so-called “innovation committee,” headed by Kim Eun-kyung. The committee’s roster is poised to be finalized by the end of the week.

Lee declared that he would forego his privilege while giving a speech at the National Assembly. The announcement was not included in the script distributed to the media in advance, taking place without warning.

Reading from a separate piece of paper he had put in between his prepared script, Lee stated, “For over a year since [his] inauguration, [President Yoon Suk-yeol] has been fully mobilizing the prosecution and the police to manufacture crimes [I, Lee Jae-myung,] did not commit, exhausting national resources to cajole and blackmail those involved. The prosecution, which has conducted over 300 searches and seizures with me as the target, has been thoroughly investigating former and current Gyeonggi Province public officials, continuing highly intense searches and seizures.”

“I give up the privilege of immunity from arrest regarding political investigations against me,” he then proclaimed.

Lee’s surprise announcement prompted applause from the Democratic Party’s side of the National Assembly plenary hall. Such an announcement can be seen as a way to open the floodgates for action by the party’s innovation committee, scheduled to launch soon.

“Lee probably thought that the immunity from arrest he held was in itself an object of reform and a stumbling block whose elimination would justify the existence of the innovation committee,” a party official commented.

Lawmakers close to Lee also remarked that Lee “signaled the beginning of full-scale reform” (Woo Won-shik) and that “the public and justice will come out victorious” (Jung Sung-ho). The Democratic Party’s innovation committee will hold its first meeting, to be presided over by committee chairperson Kim Eun-kyung, on Tuesday, joined by committee members whose appointment has been finalized.

Lee, who is on trial after being indicted over accusations of favoritism in relation to the Daejang neighborhood development case, as well as of receiving bribes for Seongnam’s football club, is currently facing many other charges still in the investigation stage.

He has been accused of corruption in the Baekhyeon neighborhood development case; of favoritism in the Jeongja neighborhood hotel development case; of favoritism in the Jeongja neighborhood Korea Gas Corporation site development case; and of receiving bribes in the SBW Group-North Korea money transfer case.

“The prosecution’s investigation has been like an unprecedentedly powerful whirlwind, so our side believes that an arrest warrant for Lee will be put out for whatever case sooner or later,” an official in Lee’s camp said.

Because of this, Lee has reportedly been seriously discussing what the National Assembly will have to vote on if an arrest warrant for him is requested — a motion consenting to his arrest — with his close associates.

“Because the prosecution keeps grappling us, hoping to get us on the hook for something, we wanted to do whatever [to make a winning move],” said Lee’s team. “Since calling us ‘bulletproof’ is the ruling party’s only strategy for the general election, we thought we should break away from such a conception and neutralize it.”

This goes hand in hand with Lee’s statement during his speech that he would “not provide an excuse” to the ruling party. In other words, he wants to cast off the bulletproof image that has hindered him and his party and show himself confidently acquiescing to an investigation by prosecutors.

But non-mainstream members of the Democratic Party are questioning whether Lee gave up his privilege only after observing the progress of investigations by the prosecution.

After arrest motions for the Daejang neighborhood case and the Wirye project development case were voted down at the National Assembly in February, Lee had been charged without detention. Prosecutors’ investigations into other cases have been slow to progress, so an arrest warrant for Lee is projected to take a good amount of time to materialize.

Some within the party criticize Lee’s announcement as “too little, too late.” A two-term Democratic Party lawmaker said, “[Lee] belatedly taking the lead after the party has fallen into shambles is disappointing.”

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter

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