Abyss looms for besieged South Korean opposition leader
SEOUL, South Korea — South Koreans woke Friday to dramatic political circumstances: The firebrand leader of the country’s leftist opposition party, already hospitalized in a dramatic protest hunger strike against government policies, could soon be behind bars.
After a shock National Assembly vote opened up that possibility late Thursday, the floor leader and general secretary of the leftist Democratic Party of Korea offered to step down. But party leader Lee Jae-myung — characteristically — came out swinging.
“The livelihoods of the people and democracy should be guarded by stopping the recklessness and the regression of dictatorial administration by the prosecution,” he stormed in a press release. “If the Democratic Party crumbles, the oppression of the prosecutor dictatorship will intensify.”
While arrests of scandal-struck politicians are nothing new for South Korean democracy, the crisis facing Mr. Lee, 58 – who has been on a high-profile hunger strike for three weeks protesting government policies – is a multidimensional swirl that even the most melodramatic K-drama would be hard-pressed to match.
Pitting the uncompromising Mr. Lee against conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, a longtime prosecutor before getting running for office, the soap opera blends martyr politics, emotive grandstanding and in-party backstabbing. Extra plot seasoning comes with allegations of secret transactions by underwear salesmen and mobsters with North Korea carried out on Mr. Lee’s behalf.
The latest act in the drama commenced late Thursday, on a National Assembly vote on a government motion to strip Mr. Lee of his immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker.
For Mr. Lee, the tally should have been risk-free: The Democratic Party, known as the DPK, holds a comfortable majority of 168 seats in the unicameral, 299-seat National Assembly. President Yoon’s conservative People Power Party occupies just 111 seats.
But when votes were counted, it was found that only 136 were in Mr. Lee’s favor and 149 were against. At least 31 DPK lawmakers had turned on their leader, according to local media analyses here.
The shock vote opens the doors for prosecutors — who have issued hundreds of warrants — to detain and grill Mr. Lee. A hearing on an arrest warrant is expected next week.
If his case is dismissed, it will be “a major boost” for Mr. Lee, said one prominent academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his relationships across the DPK. But a jail term would “put him in a very difficult position.”
In retrospect, the government’s motion looks like a bank shot designed to spark confusion and division across the political aisle.
“I think the ruling party strategy was to create internal cleavages in the opposition party,” said the academic. “They have done it very successfully.”
“It seems rather clever,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of ‘The New Koreans.’ “This really puts the opposition on the back foot.”
“The lawmakers in his party feel the need to get Lee’s scandals over with, as it will weaken their position at the next election,” added Yang Sun-mook, an entrepreneur and former international relations adviser to the party. “It’s a significant rebellion.”
Though he only lost last year’s presidential election to Mr. Yoon by a whisker – 0.7% – it seems a good-sized chunk of DPK lawmakers considered Mr. Lee too toxic to retain party leadership. A Thursday Gallup poll found that 46% of Koreans think his arrest would be just, compared to 37% who opposed the move.
The timing is sensitive: Factional struggles could roil party primaries this winter ahead of next April’s general election — which the opposition hoped to make a de facto mid-term plebiscite on the Yoon government’s performance.
Attack from all angles
No love is lost between South Korea’s president and its opposition leader. Mr. Yoon made his name as an elite prosecutor, shifting from law to politics late in his career. Mr. Lee entered the national scene through the bruising route of local politics — he was both a mayor and a provincial governor before rising to head the DPK.
The authoritarian leaders who ruled South Korea until democratization was won in 1987, forged the prosecution into a blunt tool wielded by the president’s office, a legacy that lives on to this day.
After the impeachment of right-wing President Park Geun-hye in 2017, the left-wing Moon Jae-in administration used prosecutors to jail her and virtually her entire cabinet.
With Mr. Yoon now president, Mr. Lee is in the prosecutors’ gun sights.
He stands accused of having granting favors to a property developer while he was mayor of Seongnam, a city south of Seoul, between 2014-2015, in a $15 million breach of trust case.
Additionally, he is suspected of sending $8 million secretly to North Korea to enable cross-border initiatives in 2019. The transfer, according to some reports, was conducted by Ssangbangwool Group, an underwear company allegedly controlled by South Korean mobsters.
However fantastical this may seem, some believe there may be truth to the North Korea link.
“Positioning yourself as someone who can deal with North Korea is an actual political strategy” for ambitious South Korean politicians, Mr. Breen said. “Even Park Geun-hye visited North Korea and met [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il before she was elected president.”
Legal woes have long dogged Mr. Lee, who has been the subject of, by some counts, 368 warrants – what the academic calls “a political vendetta” and “an abuse of power.” Five persons in Mr. Lee’s circle have committed suicide.
But it is not just Seoul who is out to get him. His own DPK is divided between factions loyal to Mr. Lee and to center-leftist Lee Nak-young, who is no relation to his intra-party rival.
“The non-majority faction is moderate, Lee Jae-myung’s faction is much more progressive,” said the academic. “Lee was a maverick, a local provincial politician, and the antis used to be the mainstream, but the power equation changed.”
The optics of martyrdom
Now that the fight is out in the open, however, the pendulum of public opinion may have swung back.
Besieged on all sides, Mr. Lee is a past master at playing to public emotions.
His hunger strike echoes a long line of politicians who have done the same in the face of government probes. It also harkens back to what South Koreans call the “wheel-chairmen” — conglomerate business tycoons who arrive for court hearings in wheelchairs (or even ambulances) to generate sympathy.
A photograph released Friday of Mr. Lee in his hospital bed showed him looking unshaven and uncharacteristically weak, but everyone buys it.
“He looks healthy, I think he is being taken care of,” said Mr. Yang, the DPK party rival. “There are a lot of accusations that he is eating very well in a back room.”
Still, there have been more dire outcomes from past political scandals. Ex-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2009 and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in 2020 committed suicide amid investigations and allegations of impropriety.
According to local media, a party delegation will visit Mr. Lee in hospital to urge him to quit his hunger strike. The government does not seem overly concerned about Mr. Lee becoming a martyr – and nor do those who know him.
“He will not commit suicide,” said the academic. “He is a born fighter, a tough guy. … He always comes back.”