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Opposition leader indicted on corruption charges

Lee claims allegations are fabricated, lobs criticism at Yoon’s Japan deal

By Kim Arin

Published : March 22, 2023 - 16:35

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Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the head of the Democratic Party of Korea, appears at the meeting of the party leaders on Wednesday morning. (Yonhap) Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the head of the Democratic Party of Korea, appears at the meeting of the party leaders on Wednesday morning. (Yonhap)

The leader of South Korea’s opposition party was indicted on Wednesday for an array of corruption charges following a year-and-a-half-long investigation.

According to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, the Democratic Party of Korea chairperson Rep. Lee Jae-myung will be sent to trial over his suspected role in a controversial real estate project during his time as the mayor of Seongnam, a city in Gyeonggi Province.

Seoul prosecutors said in a release that as mayor, Lee leaked confidential information about the real estate project to select private investors, allowing them to reap at least 788.6 billion won ($603 million) in profit. This would constitute a violation of the Act on the Prevention of Conflict of Interest in Public Office.

The city’s corporation for real estate development as a result only received 183.9 billion won of the 672.5 billion won they were anticipated to make, which would constitute a breach of trust by a public servant, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors added that then-mayor Lee also received 13.3 billion won in bribes from four companies based in the city in the form of sponsorships to the city-run soccer club.

Lee said his indictment “did not surprise” him, speaking at an emergency meeting of the Democratic Party leaders.

“I have said that the prosecutors will do whatever it takes to get me indicted. It is evident the prosecutors were so intent on indicting me that they were willing to fabricate facts,” he said.

“Now I will have the opportunity to reveal the full truth in court.”

Publicly, Lee has consistently denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the allegations of corruption were “made up” by the prosecutors to serve the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s political goals.

He argued that the criminal investigation against him was Yoon’s “ploy to get rid of a political adversary.” Last year, he ran against Yoon as the Democratic Party presidential candidate and lost by a narrow margin of 0.73 percent.

The deputy head of the Democratic Party’s legal affairs, Cho Sang-ho, told The Korea Herald that there was “nothing unexpected” about the prosecutors’ move to indict Lee.

“Very rarely would the head of a municipality face criminal indictment for managing and having involvement in a public project,” he said.

“Using the same logic, you could argue that (President) Yoon was abusing his authority by deciding to have the forced labor victims compensated using a third-party fund.”

The Democratic Party is responding to its leader’s indictment with a series of attacks on Yoon’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last week.

At the summit, the leaders of the two countries agreed to work towards mending ties, taking a step towards overcoming the historical dispute of colonial Japan's forced mobilization of South Korean laborers.

“It’s just confusing to me, whether Yoon is the president of South Korea or Japan,” Lee said on the outcomes of the summit outside the National Assembly, shortly after the announcement of his indictment. His party held a national flag hanging ceremony to protest the Yoon administration’s approach to diplomacy with Japan.

Prosecutors didn’t file a request for Lee’s arrest warrant this time, after the first warrant was rejected by the National Assembly in a close vote last month. To issue an arrest warrant for Lee, a sitting lawmaker, the court must first obtain the Assembly’s majority consent.

Wednesday’s indictment is not the only criminal investigation that Lee is up against.

Prosecutors are also looking into Lee’s alleged contact with North Korea in 2019 while he was the governor of Gyeonggi Province. Lee’s former aide in the Gyeonggi office was indicted earlier this week for sending at least $8 million to North Korean authorities on behalf of Lee for a possible joint project between the province and North Korea.