The Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung spent the entire day away from the National Assembly on Tuesday, attending Seoul court where he faces a criminal trial into real estate corruption scandals from his days as the mayor of Seongnam in Gyeonggi Province.
Appearing at a Seoul court in the morning, Lee shunned questions from reporters. While defendant attendance is mandatory for criminal cases, the Democratic Party chair failed to attend the last trial held on Oct. 13, citing Assembly duties.
At the Assembly audit of prosecution services held the same day, Democratic Party lawmakers claimed Lee was a victim of a “politicized justice system.”
Rep. Kim Eui-kyeom, who was the spokesperson for former President Moon Jae-in, said that the prosecutors investigating the party’s chair were the “ones who need to be investigated.” Kim was reported to police earlier for accusing a judge in charge of deciding whether to issue a warrant for Lee of having close connections to prosecutors.
Others within the Democratic Party have suggested that legally embattled Lee step down as the party’s leader, concerned that his legal situation could be a liability for voters in the general election next year.
Democratic Party Rep. Cho Eung-cheon on Tuesday said in a radio interview that the chair’s long list of criminal charges could make swing and independent voters less likely to vote for the party. He said he was asking the chair to resign “for the sake of the party.”
Cho came under attack by the chair’s supporters, who are organizing rallies and signing petitions to “purge” the Democratic Party of him and other Lee Jae-myung critics.
The party supporters have bashed those who are skeptical of Lee’s continued leadership as the Democratic Party chair, calling them derogatory names such as “watermelons.” The slang, meaning one is Democratic Party-blue on the outside but People Power Party-red on the inside, is used by supporters to refer to lawmakers with “questionable allegiance to the party.”
Following the Sept. 21 Assembly vote that passed the court’s request to review Lee’s arrest warrant, the Democratic Party introduced new floor leadership dominated by hard-line pro-Lee Jae-myung lawmakers.
Lee is accused of offering insider information to private investors with close ties to him while he was mayor of Seongnam, and allowing them to profit illicitly from the city-led urban development projects. In a related trial, he is accused of testifying falsely before the Assembly about the suspicions surrounding the city projects.
In a separate trial into another corruption case from his time as mayor, he is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes from companies in the form of donations to a city-owned soccer club.
Other ongoing investigations include whether Lee paid North Korean authorities during his tenure as the governor of Gyeonggi Province to organize his Pyongyang trip. He is also under investigation over accusations he forced a witness to give false testimony in his favor in court.
Lee, who is already in court at least once a week, might have to stay away from the Assembly up to four times a week if he ends up being indicted in the investigations that have yet to be completed.
Responding to lawmakers during Tuesday’s Assembly audit, the chief of the Seoul district prosecutors’ office Song Kyung-ho said “every one of” the investigations into the opposition leader’s criminal suspicions were “very serious.”