The National Assembly approved, Thursday, a motion to arrest main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung, as a larger-than-expected number of lawmakers of the majority-holding party voted for the arrest of their own chief.
This is anticipated to cause turmoil within the DPK's ranks before the general election is held in April next year, according to pundits.
During a plenary session, participated by 295 lawmakers, 149 approved and 136 opposed the justice ministry's motion requesting parliamentary consent to arrest Lee, who has been accused of being involved in a scandal-ridden land development project in Baekhyeon-dong in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, and a company's illegal cash remittance to North Korea. The motion needed at least 148 votes in favor to pass.
The DPK, which has 168 lawmakers, was able to dismiss the motion. But considering that there were 110 lawmakers from the ruling People Power Party (PPP), six from the minor opposition Justice Party and four others who voted to approve Lee's arrest, 29 lawmakers from the DPK are assumed to have cast ballots against their own chairman.
Initially, Lee said he would relinquish his immunity from arrest, which is a right held by lawmakers. But a day before the vote, he wrote on his Facebook account, "Approving this illegal and unfair arrest motion will only accelerate the politically motivated prosecution's manipulated investigations." It appears that this message backfired among anti-Lee faction members in the DPK.
Before the vote, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon told lawmakers, "It can be a coincidence if an arrest warrant was sought for Rep. Lee just once, but his criminal activities are repetitions of similar crimes and obstructions of justice." In February, Lee avoided arrest after a parliamentary vote over other bribery allegations.
Following the parliamentary consent, a court hearing will be held to determine whether to grant the prosecution's request for an arrest warrant for Lee.
PPP senior spokesperson Rep. Kang Min-kuk said, "The vote proves that no trick to protect Lee can avoid the rule of law." Kang added, "The DPK should apologize to the public for its practices."
"We are very surprised and in shock," DPK spokesperson Rep. Lee So-young said. "The leadership had requested members to vote against the motion, but we feel regretful the results turned out otherwise."
As a significant number of DPK members voted for Lee's arrest, factional infighting is anticipated to heat up further, while pundits said the party could face an uncertain future.
"The party's fate remains very uncertain depending on how the situation unfolds," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "If the pro-Lee faction and other Lee loyalists attempt to ferret out those who voted against their chairman, friction will only intensify within the party."
But Park Sang-byeong, a professor at Inha University's Graduate School of Policy Science, said the main opposition party is experiencing extreme volatility, but chances are slim for it to be split.
"If the party were to be divided, former DPK Chairman Lee Nak-yon could be the possible leader of the new party, but its sustainability is still questioned," Park said.
DPK urges Yoon to sack prime minister
Prior to the vote on Lee, the Assembly approved a motion requesting President Yoon Suk Yeol to dismiss Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, marking the first case of such a motion being passed in Korea's parliamentary history.
With 295 lawmakers participating, 175 approved, 116 rejected and four abstained. The result appears to be an outcome of the DPK's push.
The DPK tabled the motion on Sept. 18 claiming Han should be held responsible for a massive crowd crush in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment district last year, the country's unsuccessful hosting of the World Scout Jamboree this summer, the government's lenient stance on Japan's decision to release wastewater from its Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean and other controversies plaguing state affairs.
"Prime Minister Han has been at the center of the Yoon administration's inability to handle state affairs," DPK deputy floor leader Song Ki-hun said before the vote. "President Yoon should also show his determination to stop retrogrossive practices and debacles in state affairs."
The motion, however, is seen as a political attack against the Yoon administration, because it is a non-binding request to the president and chances are slim for Yoon to accept it and sack the prime minister.
Under the DPK's majority, the Assembly has already passed motions requesting the dismissals of foreign minister Park Jin and safety minister Lee Sang-min, respectively, but Yoon has snubbed them.
An official at the presidential office said, Thursday, that it does not intend to comment on this issue.