The Ring Around Lee Jae-Myung Shrinks

In a previous article, “What is Lee Jae Myung closer to – a prison or political leadership?” it was reported on the criminal cases involving Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Jae-myung. But new ones are being added to the old ones and it looks like the ground beneath Lee’s feet is beginning to smoke, if not burn.

On October 19, 2022, Kim Yong, vice president of the Institute for Democracy, who is considered one of Lee Jae-myung’s closest aides, was detained at the request of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. His house was searched.  Kim Yong is accused of accepting bribes, in violation of the Political Funds Act, in the course of a development project in the Daejang-dong district of Seongnam when Lee was mayor.  Kim is suspected of receiving kickbacks from Yoo Dong-kyu, former acting president of the Seongnam Development Corp., and an important figure in Seongnamgate.

The investigation is believed to have gathered momentum after Yoo Dong-kyu told prosecutors that Kim Yong demanded 2 billion won ($1.39 million) from him in February 2021 for Lee’s election campaign.

On the same day, October 19, 2022, prosecutors attempted to search the headquarters of the Toburo Democratic Party, home to the Institute for Democracy, which the arrested Kim heads. An important detail: instead of detaining the people who blocked the search, Prosecutor General Lee Won-seok asked MPs to cooperate, recalling that even during the former Park Geun-hye administration, investigators were able to search the presidential office.

On October 21, prosecutors requested an arrest warrant for Kim Yong, and Lee Jae-myung suggested appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the corruption scandal in which his close associate is suspected of involvement.

The presidential administration declined to comment, while People Power Party rejected the request, saying Lee was trying to stall for time.

On October 22, a court issued an arrest warrant for Kim Yong on charges of violating the Political Funds Act, widely interpreted as a sign that the investigation is closing in on Lee. The arrest warrant specified Kim’s role as the “manager of campaign funds and related organizations”.

On the same day, October 22, mass rallies organized by conservative and democratic NGOs took place simultaneously in downtown Seoul: conservatives numbering around 32,000 (law enforcement estimates) demanded the “immediate arrest” of Lee Jae-myung and Moon Jae-in. Democracy activists, of whom the police said about 16,000 had gathered, and according to their own estimation 200,000, had called for Yoon Suk-yeol’s resignation.

On the morning of October 24, the Prosecutors Office again raided the Institute for Democracy with searches and seizures. On September 26, the Prosecutors Office filed charges against Yoo Dong-kyu in connection with corruption in the development of the town of Wirye.

The Prosecutors Office is expected to widen the investigation to determine whether any illegal political means were used in Lee’s nomination for Seongnam mayor in 2014 or any other election.

At the same time, the investigation “reaches out” to others close to Lee. On October 19, 2022, the Prosecutors Office charged and remanded Lee Jung-geun, a former deputy secretary general of the Democratic Party, on charges that she took 940 million won from a businessman surnamed Park in exchange for promises of lobbying between 2019 and 2021.

There is also an ongoing investigation into currency smuggling allegedly involving underwear company Ssang bang wool: some 60 employees of the firm allegedly flew to China in 2019 to smuggle tens or thousands of millions of won worth of dollar notes in books, cosmetic bags or other personal items.

The investigation suspects that the currency was in fact going to North Korea, for just at the time Ssang bang wool was promoting business projects with North Korea, and former chairman and de facto owner Kim Sung Tae was meeting with officials of the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee and the North Korean National Economic Cooperation Federation. It is likely that former chairman Kim knew the final destination of the smuggled money, but he fled abroad in May 2022.

The investigation is getting close to another of Lee’s agents, Jeong Jin-sang, over allegations that when Lee was mayor of Seongnam, he received illegal donations through the city’s football club Seongnam FC.

Finally, the police handed over to the Suwon District Prosecutors Office the investigation file against Lee Jae-myung’s son Lee Dong-ho, who is suspected of engaging in illegal online gambling through foreign websites between 2019 and 2021 and is accused of publishing degrading remarks and comments that amount to sexual harassment.

As a result, the confrontation between the Conservatives and the Democrats has reached a new level. Conservatives claim that the Democratic Party has ceased to be politically active, has openly gone against the law and has become a defender of the interests of criminals.

The democrats, on the other hand, accuse the government of pressuring the opposition for the first time in South Korea’s history (rather since the Sixth Republic) so openly and consistently, demanding that the Prosecutors Office stop its attempts to raid party headquarters and that Prosecutor General Lee Won-seok resign.

Against this backdrop, the Democratic Party boycotted a number of National Assembly meetings to check the Prosecutors Office and government ministries, and boycotted President Yoon Suk-yeol’s keynote speech to the National Assembly on October 25.  Democratic Party leaders also refrained from meeting Yoon with the Speaker of the National Assembly and other key figures before the speech and instead held a silent protest upon Yoon’s arrival at the National Assembly.

While there have been occasions in the past when opposition lawmakers have not attended the prime minister’s keynote speech delivered on behalf of the president, this was the first time that lawmakers refused to attend a keynote speech delivered personally by the president.

Lee Jae-myung, on the other hand, has declared his intention to fight to the end in case the authorities and the ruling party continue their attempts to “destroy the opposition”. According to him, “politics have disappeared in the country, only violent domination remains”.

Apart from the routine claims that his prosecution is political revenge, Lee, as mentioned above, hopes to have his case investigated by a “democratic special prosecutor”. In addition, Lee’s version also implicates Yoon Suk-yeol in Seongnamgate, as the sister of Kim Man-bae, one of the key figures in the scandal, bought a house from the president’s father, and in 2011, when Yoon was prosecutor, he failed to properly investigate an illegal loan from Busan Savings Bank to Daejang-dong developers.

But such a position has a number of weaknesses. First, if Lee is really innocent, he has no reason to avoid the investigation and defiantly refuse to cooperate with the investigation.

Second, a special prosecutor is usually appointed when the prosecution is slow to conduct sensitive investigations or fails to investigate the case properly. But this time the prosecution has only just begun investigating Lee’s suspicious campaign financing, and there is no point in demanding a special prosecutor.

Third, attempts to “deflect the blame” onto Yoon are too far-fetched.

As a result, murmurs arose within the Democratic Party as well – the boat was being rocked by supporters of Moon Jae-in, as well as those who simply believed that Lee Jae-myung’s race for parliamentary immunity would not end well for the party.  For instance, MP Sol Hun said on October 20 that he had recommended back in August that Lee not run for the party chairmanship because “we must prevent individual risks from spreading to the entire party”. In addition, Sol said that he does not fully believe in Kim Yong’s innocence and the situation needs to be monitored.

So far, however, it is a murmur of individuals – most Democrats realize they are in the same boat, for the investigation is not only getting close to Lee, but also to Moon. That is why the author expects action to breed opposition by all means up to and including an attempt to impeach Yoon Suk-yeol in the coming year 2023.

By Konstantin Asmolov, PhD
Source: New Eastern Outlook

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