South Korea’s National Assembly voted on Thursday to lift the immunity of the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, ahead of a potential arrest warrant on charges of embezzlement, bribery, perjury, and related offenses. The vote passed with a slim majority, with 149 legislators voting in favor of the charges, with the other 136 opposed.
The Ministry of Justice requested the National Assembly lift Lee’s immunity on Tuesday, citing a request from a judge in the Central District Court of Seoul, South Korea. That order originates from a February 16 arrest warrant request from prosecutors in the Central District concerning Lee’s involvement in granting preferential treatment to certain development projects and the sponsoring of the Seongnam football club.
Lee, like all other lawmakers in the National Assembly, previously enjoyed immunity from arrest. It is only through a majority vote of the assembly that the immunity can be lifted—which is what Thursday’s vote accomplished.
Legislators previously held a vote to lift Lee’s immunity on February 22, but the vote failed. Since then, the corruption allegations have expanded, as Lee is now suspected of corruption in another development project and of sending money to North Korea.
Lee is suspected of illegally benefiting private companies during his tenure as mayor of Seongnam by transforming a natural green zone in Bundang-gu, a major city outside of Seoul, into a semi-residential area. In doing so, Lee allegedly excluded the Seongnam Urban Development Corporation from the development process, causing damage of at least 20 billion won. Prosecutors also believe that Lee made illegal money transfers to North Korea in 2019. Those accusations stem from Lee’s inability to carry out a smart farm project in North Korea due to UN sanctions. Lee allegedly demanded a bribe in exchange for granting the unauthorized requests.
The opposition has rejected these accusations and criticized the charges for targeting Lee for political purposes. On Friday, Lee responded to the charges, calling for his supporters and supporters of the Democratic Party to remain steadfast in their support. Lee does not intend to step down ahead of any official issuance of an arrest warrant. Rather, the party filed on Friday a petition to dismiss the arrest warrant request, citing potential problems carrying out the party’s responsibilities if Lee is arrested on the purported charges.
If the court issues an arrest warrant, Lee will be detained and will not be able to perform his duties as the leader of the opposition.