Head of South Korea’s Main Political Opposition Dodges Arrest, But Divides Party

For weeks, Lee Jae-myung, leader of South Korea’s Democratic Party (DP), the country’s main opposition party, has been at the centre of an unfolding political drama.

On September 23, Lee ended a 24-day hunger strike over what he characterized as unfounded and politically motivated threats to charge him with corruption-related offences. Prosecutors were seeking to arrest him, claiming Lee might destroy evidence related to the allegations against him. As a sitting member of parliament, Lee had immunity from arrest. But on September 21, several DP members of the National Assembly broke ranks and voted to lift that immunity. Then, on September 27, a Seoul court rejected the arrest warrant, saying there were insufficient grounds to support the prosecution’s argument that Lee might destroy evidence.

A political leader’s change of fortune

Lee was the DP’s nominee for the March 2022 presidential election, which he lost to now-President Yoon Suk Yeol by less than one percentage point. During the campaign, allegations surfaced that Lee engaged in offences such as bribery and abuse of power while serving as governor of Gyeonggi Province (2018-21), which surrounds the capital city of Seoul, and as mayor of Seongnam (2010-18). After losing his bid for the presidency, Lee won a seat in the National Assembly and has been a sharp critic of Yoon’s policies. Prior to running for president, Yoon made a name for himself as a tough prosecutor whose highest-profile cases included investigating corruption by former presidents.

Mixed blessing for the Democratic Party

On one hand, the court’s decision to reject the arrest warrant emboldens Lee’s supporters, who have accused the Yoon government of “oppressive investigation” of its political rivals. On the other hand, in giving Lee a lifeline, it prevents his party from jettisoning him and regrouping around a new leader.

The DP holds 168 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats, compared to the 111 seats held by Yoon’s conservative People Power Party. If Lee becomes a serious political liability, it could make it difficult for his party to hold on to its majority in the April 2024 National Assembly elections and continue to block Yoon’s policies.