The fate of Democratic Party (DP) leader Lee Jae-myung, and the landscape of next year’s general election, is likely to come down to how a handful of votes swing on Thursday regarding the arrest motion against him.
The motion, which was signed off by President Yoon Suk Yeol earlier this week, was reported to the National Assembly on Wednesday ahead of its scheduled floor vote on Thursday.
As a sitting lawmaker, Lee cannot be arrested by prosecutors while the National Assembly is in session unless a parliamentary majority, or 149 lawmakers, approves the motion.
Lee won his seat via a by-election held in June last year, just two months before he also won the party leadership in a race that cemented his control over the DP.
While the liberal DP controls a 167-seat majority in the National Assembly, it remains unclear whether Lee will be able to retain the same level of support he had during prosecutors’ last motion to arrest him in February.
Most of the party’s lawmakers voted down that motion, but the total number of votes cast in opposition — 138 — fell not only short of the party’s share of seats, but also the 139 votes cast in favor of his arrest.
At least 29 members of Lee’s own party must approve the latest arrest motion against him for it to pass, given that the rival conservative People Power Party (PPP) currently holds 111 seats and will likely be able to muster nine votes from minor party or independent lawmakers, according to political observers.
Lee, who has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 31, was taken to a hospital on Monday, hours before prosecutors asked the Seoul Central District Court to issue an arrest warrant for the DP leader on corruption charges that included bribery and breach of trust.
DP officials said Lee had been found almost unconscious in his office, his blood sugar levels having fallen sharply.
Party officials, lawmakers and even former President Moon Jae-in have visited Lee to urge him to stop his hunger strike, citing his deteriorating health.
Prosecutors suspect that Lee asked underwear company Ssangbangwool to illegally transfer $8 million to North Korea, allegedly in an effort to convince the North to engage in inter-Korean economic cooperation with Gyeonggi, where the DP leader served as governor from 2018 to 2021.
Lee is also accused of rigging the profit-sharing structures of development projects in Daejang-dong and Baekhyeon-dong in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, to favor certain private investors.
Lee served as mayor of Seongnam from 2010 to 2018.
In a post uploaded to Facebook on Wednesday, Lee denied the charges against him.
“The idea that a human rights lawyer-turned-politician committed a felony by paying a 10-billion-won ($7.5-million) bribe to North Korea for a useless, one-off photo-op is utterly fanciful,” he said, describing the allegations as “not even good enough to be used as the plot of a third-rate novel.”
Whichever way the National Assembly votes on Lee’s arrest motion, its rejection or approval is likely to be used a cudgel by both the DP and the rival PPP to galvanize their support ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for April.
The PPP has invoked previous arrest motions against liberal lawmakers that were dismissed by the legislature as evidence that the DP is abusing long-standing parliamentary immunity in order to protect its own members against criminal investigation.
The 21st National Assembly has thus far only approved arrest motions against PPP lawmakers.
The legislature in June rejected arrest motions against DP lawmakers Lee Sung-man and Youn Kwan-suk, who are accused of helping distribute bribes to DP members and lawmakers ahead of the party’s national convention in 2021 to help then-lawmaker Song Young-gil be elected party chairman.
Youn was eventually arrested last month after the Seoul Central District Court approved a warrant request filed by prosecutors while the National Assembly was out of session.
But the passage of the arrest motion against Lee could also turn him into a martyr for the DP, which has long railed against what it has characterized as politically motivated investigations by the state prosecution service.
In his Facebook post Wednesday, Lee argued that prosecutors had deliberately chosen to file a motion for his arrest after the National Assembly had reconvened to force DP lawmakers to choose between allowing his arrest or facing public opprobrium.
“The prosecution is playing politics instead of conducting an investigation,” Lee said, arguing that prosecutors “know that if the motion passes, the DP will be internally divided, but if the motion fails, the party will be pigeonholed as a ‘bulletproof’ cartel that protects its own members at all costs.”
Lee previously said that he would waive his own immunity against arrest and not ask his party to shield him.
But in his Facebook post, he said that approving his arrest motion will only serve to embolden the prosecution’s “fabricated investigations.”
The arrest motion against Lee is not the only pending bill that targets a major politician.
On Monday, the DP submitted a motion seeking the dismissal of Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, accusing him of serious incompetence as chief of the Cabinet and holding him responsible for a litany of alleged failures by the Yoon administration, such as its lukewarm response to Japan’s release of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the debacle of last month’s World Scout Jamboree.
Yoon is expected to reject the motion, despite its likely passage on Thursday.
The DP has passed two dismissal motions since Yoon took office: one against Foreign Minister Park Jin and another against Interior Minister Lee Sang-min. Both were rejected by the president.
The presidential office has argued that the DP’s latest dismissal motion is aimed at diverting public attention away from the arrest motion against Lee and consolidating internal party cohesion.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]