SEOUL: In a surprise move, South Korea’s opposition-controlled National Assembly voted today to strip the leader of the opposition of his parliamentary immunity, potentially allowing his arrest over corruption allegations.
Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party, has been accused by prosecutors of bribery in connection with a firm that is suspected of illicitly transferring US$8 million to North Korea.
He is also accused of breaching his duties, which allegedly resulted in a loss of 20 billion won (US$15 million) for a company owned by Seongnam city during his term as its mayor.
Despite his party’s majority in the 300-member parliament, the motion to lift Lee’s immunity passed by a 149-136 vote.
At least 29 members of Lee’s party voted to strip his immunity, South Korean’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Lee has denied all the allegations against him, and yesterday asked his party members to reject the motion, which he called “clearly illegal and unjust”.
This triggered escalating criticism from within the Democratic Party, local reports said, as Lee’s stance contradicted his earlier promises to relinquish immunity if needed.
Han Dong-hoon, South Korea’s justice minister, described Lee as “a serious criminal suspect” and accused him of colluding with people with “gangster backgrounds”.
The opposition leader also committed “a serious crime akin to disrupting the foundation of the nation” by “attempting to undermine UN sanctions against North Korea”, Han told parliament.
Lee, 58, launched a hunger strike on Aug 31 over what he calls the government’s “incompetent and violent” policies, especially its failure to oppose Japan’s release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima reactor.
He was transferred to a hospital on Monday, but this did not prevent prosecutors from issuing a request for an arrest warrant the same day.
A former child factory worker who suffered an industrial accident as a teenage school drop-out, Lee rose to political stardom partly by playing up his rags-to-riches tale.
But his bid for the top office has been overshadowed by a string of scandals.
He faced scrutiny over a questionable land development deal and persistent rumours linking him to organised crime.
At least five individuals connected to Lee’s various scandals in the past have been found dead, many in what appeared to be suicides.