Dismissal of arrest warrant request for Lee likely to reinvigorate campaign against ruling camp

Posted on : 2023-09-27 16:24 KST Modified on : 2023-09-27 18:23 KST
A court did not issue the warrant for Lee Jae-myung’s arrest requested by prosecutors, not acknowledging a risk of destruction of evidence
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of Korea’s top opposition Democratic Party, gives a statement after departing Seoul Detention Center on Sept. 27. (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of Korea’s top opposition Democratic Party, gives a statement after departing Seoul Detention Center on Sept. 27. (Yonhap)

A South Korean court rejected prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant against Lee Jae-myung, head of the opposition Democratic Party, on Wednesday. Prosecutors described the court’s decision as “regrettable and hard to understand.”

Yu Chang-hun, a judge in charge of warrants at the Seoul Central District Court, made the decision at 2:23 am on Wednesday.

“Taking into account both the need to guarantee the defendant’s right to a legal defense and the degree of concerns about the destruction of evidence, the court does not see a need or reason for detaining the defendant that would supersede the principle of allowing the defendant to remain at liberty during the investigation,” the judge said while explaining his refusal to issue a warrant.

In regard to the charges, the judge said prosecutors had ample evidence to convict Lee on subornation of perjury, but said that allegations about giving special treatment to a developer and paying funds to North Korea were more contentious.

Lee faces the following charges. First, he’s accused of giving special treatment to a private real estate developer in the Baekhyeon neighborhood, causing at least 20 billion won of losses to the Seongnam Development Corporation. Second, he’s accused of arranging for a total of US$8 million in funds, including travel expenses, to be paid to North Korea on behalf of the SBW Group. Finally, he’s accused of suborning a witness to commit perjury in a trial about impersonating a prosecutor.

The specific criminal charges are subornation of perjury, breach of trust and bribery (which are both violations of the Act on Aggravated Punishment of Specific Economic Crimes) and a violation of the Foreign Exchange Transactions Act.

The judge also declined to acknowledge concerns that Lee might destroy evidence considering that he constantly faces public scrutiny and criticism as the sitting leader of a major political party.

Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the top opposition Democratic Party, heads into the Seoul Central District Court on Sept. 26 for a warrant review. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the top opposition Democratic Party, heads into the Seoul Central District Court on Sept. 26 for a warrant review. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

The court’s rejection of the arrest warrant on Wednesday frees Lee of some of the “judicial risk” that has dogged him in the near year and a half since Yoon Suk-yeol became president. Prosecutors could carry out more investigations, and Lee must still maintain his innocence in the ongoing trial about special treatment in the Daejang neighborhood development project and other trials yet to come. Still, the court’s decision gives him a little breathing room.

“I’d like to thank everyone who is here with me at such a late hour, as well as everyone staying up to watch this [on TV]. While it may seem that politics is run by politicians, citizens have the biggest part to play,” Lee said after emerging from Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang at 3:50 am on Wednesday.

“The ruling party, the opposition party and the government must never forget that politics has always been about improving the lives of the people and charting the future of our country. I hope politics will stop being a war aimed at wiping each other out and return to its true sense of being a competition about who can do a better job for the Korean nation and people.”

“The day after tomorrow is Chuseok, a holiday that everyone ought to enjoy. But Koreans’ lives and the issues facing our economy and livelihood are truly challenging. I would ask everyone in the government, the ruling party and the political world to make Korean politics something that will bring the people hope and be beneficial for the future of this country,” Lee said.

“Once again, I’d like to express my profound appreciation to the judicial branch for reaching a wise decision and safeguarding the constitutional order of the Republic of Korea,” Lee said, bowing his head.

“The court’s rejection of the arrest warrant should send a warning to President Yoon Suk-yeol and his tyrannical prosecutors, who are hell-bent on crushing the opposition party and eliminating their political enemies,” said Kwon Chil-seung, a senior spokesperson for the Democratic Party.

“The callous distortions and fabrications of the investigation carried out by the Yoon administration and the politicized prosecutors failed to clear the hurdle of the courts. In the end, justice prevails. It’s time for prosecutors to call off their base attacks on Lee,” Kwon said.

Following his defeat in the presidential election, Lee’s hands have been tied by the ongoing investigation into special treatment in the Daejang neighborhood development. Lee was elected as the representative for Incheon’s Gyeyang B district in a by-election on June 1, 2022, and then claimed leadership of the party in the convention that August. But he has been hounded by accusations that his party has been trying to shield him from his legal troubles.

In that sense, the court’s rejection of the arrest warrant represents a second chance for Lee, whose political future had been jeopardized by constant attacks not only from the ruling party but also from detractors in his own party.

After rallying his base with a 24-day hunger strike that began on Aug. 31, Lee is now likely to repair the divisions in the party and launch a vigorous campaign against the ruling party.

The first task facing Lee is to narrow the gap between the party mainstream and fringe that was exacerbated by the National Assembly’s passage of a motion to strip Lee of his parliamentary immunity from arrest. After at least 29 members of the Democratic Party sided with the ruling party to support the motion on Sept. 21, the party has been torn by calls for those members to be identified and punished.

Now that Lee’s position has been reinforced by the court’s decision, he’s not likely to seek vengeance against the “traitors” in his party. He has reiterated several times since taking control of the party that “a schism in the party will lead to defeat in the general election, and that’s not an outcome I want either.”

“Lee Jae-myung is the only person who can calm the current unrest in the party. This is his chance to restore the leadership that was damaged by the passage of the arrest consent motion,” said one lawmaker in the Democratic Party who has served for several terms.

“Considering that our election strategy next year will be holding the Yoon administration accountable for its failings, I don’t think Lee would choose to weaken our focus on the fight against the ruling party,” said a first-term lawmaker who isn’t strongly associated with any party factions.

But others expect that Lee will concentrate on bringing the party back under his complete control before he cranks up pressure on the Yoon administration. That suggests that Lee could take demands from party hard-liners as an excuse to discipline party members who voted to strip him of his immunity from arrest.

But that could lead to an all-out brawl between the party mainstream and fringe before the general election. In the worst-case scenario, some say, that conflict might even culminate in a party split.

By Lee Jae-ho, staff reporter; Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter; Um Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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