SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a surprise outcome, South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament on Thursday voted to pass a motion submitted by the government that allows for the potential arrest of the country’s leading opposition figure, Lee Jae-myung, who faces a widening investigation over corruption allegations.
Lawmakers voted 149-136 in favor of lifting Lee’s immunity to arrest, which allows the Seoul Central District Court to set up a hearing on prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant for Lee, who has been the chairperson of the Democratic Party since August last year.
It was not immediately clear when the hearing would take place or how likely it would be that the court would grant an arrest warrant for Lee after he was hospitalized on Monday while continuing a weekslong hunger strike in protest of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol’s domestic and foreign policies.
Lee, a liberal who previously said he was willing to give up his immunity against arrest because he was confident about proving his innocence, pleaded with lawmakers to vote against the motion on Wednesday, saying in a Facebook message that his potential arrest would “attach wings to prosecutors’ manipulated investigation.”
Lee, who narrowly lost to Yoon in the presidential election in March last year, is being investigated by prosecutors over various criminal allegations. They include allegations 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 had a decade-long run as mayor 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.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, some reformist members of Lee’s party had called for him to stay true to his words and publicly endorse the motion seeking his arrest. They said that would help rally public support for the Democrats that has been sliding since his presidential loss and silence suspicions that he was hunger-striking to avoid arrest.
Lee has tied his hunger strike to a worsening economy and a broad range of Yoon’s foreign policy decisions, including the government’s refusal to oppose Japan’s release into the sea of treated wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Lee has also accused Yoon of aggravating tensions with North Korea by taking aggressive steps to expand military training and other security cooperation with the United States and Japan.
Under law, courts cannot hold hearings on prosecutors’ requests for arrest warrants against lawmakers during active sessions unless the assembly allows them to do so by vote. The Democratic Party blocked a previous attempt by prosecutors to arrest Lee in February.
Lawmakers also on Thursday passed a motion urging Yoon to sack his prime minister, Han Duck-soo, over alleged incompetence and policy failures.
The dueling motions underscored deepening political bickering ahead of parliamentary elections in April next year. That vote is seen as a midterm referendum on Yoon’s presidency as he struggles to navigate post-pandemic economic woes and escalating tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Yoon, who warned world leaders about a potential arms alliance between North Korea and Russia at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, is widely expected to reject the call to dismiss Han, who has been a frequent target for the opposition.
The Democratic Party submitted the motion seeking Han’s ouster on Monday, hours after Yoon’s government submitted its motion requesting lawmakers to lift Lee’s immunity to arrest.
Lawmakers voted 175-116 in favor of pushing for Han’s dismissal. The motion, which was signed by 168 opposition lawmakers, alleged that the Cabinet led by Han caused “crisis for people’s lives, democracy and peace on the Korean Peninsula” and “consistently demonstrated incompetence, inaction and irresponsibility.”