SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Coming off a 24-day hunger strike, South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung appeared in front of a judge on Tuesday who will decide whether he will be arrested on broad corruption allegations.
Walking slowly with a cane, Lee, a former presidential candidate, refused to answer questions from reporters as he arrived at Seoul Central District Court for a hearing on prosecutors' request for an arrest warrant.
Despite a light rain, hundreds of Lee’s supporters and critics occupied separate streets near the court amidst a heavy police presence, holding dueling signs reading “Stop the prosecution’s manipulated investigation” and “Arrest Lee Jae-myung.”
In an unexpected outcome last week, the opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to lift Lee’s immunity to arrest, reflecting growing divisions within his liberal Democratic Party over his legal problems months ahead of a general election.
The court is expected to decide by late Tuesday or early Wednesday on whether to approve an arrest warrant. Lee has been recovering since ending a hunger strike on Saturday that he had staged in protest of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol’s policies.
Lee is being investigated over various criminal allegations, including accusations that he provided unlawful favors to a private investor that reaped huge profits from a dubious real estate project in the city of Seongnam, where he was mayor for a decade until 2018. Prosecutors also believe that Lee pressured a local businessman into sending millions of dollars in illegal payments to North Korea as he tried to set up a visit to that country that never materialized.
Lee has denied legal wrongdoing and accused the Yoon government of pushing a political vendetta. The Democratic Party selected Lee as its chairperson in August last year, months after he narrowly lost the presidential election to Yoon.
Ahead of last week's parliamentary vote, Lee pleaded with lawmakers to vote against the motion submitted by the government to remove his immunity, saying his arrest would “attach wings to prosecutors’ manipulated investigation.”
Lee had previously said he was willing to give up his immunity because he was confident about proving his innocence.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, some reformist members of the Democratic Party called for Lee to stay true to his words and endorse the motion seeking his own arrest. They said that would rally public support for the party, which has been sliding since Lee's presidential election loss, and silence suspicions that he conducted the hunger strike to avoid arrest.
Lee said the hunger strike was to protest a worsening economy and a broad range of Yoon’s foreign policy decisions, including the government’s refusal to oppose Japan’s release of treated wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea. Lee has also accused Yoon of raising tensions with North Korea by expanding military training and security cooperation with the United States and Japan.
Under law, courts cannot hold hearings on requests for arrest warrants for lawmakers during National Assembly sessions unless the assembly allows them to do so by a vote. The Democratic Party blocked a previous attempt by prosecutors to arrest Lee in February.