Few expected the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which holds a majority of seats at the National Assembly, to strip its chairman, Lee Jae-myung, of immunity from arrest. But on Thursday, the Assembly passed a motion to allow the potential arrest of Lee, who is embroiled in corruption scandals, after at least 29 DPK lawmakers voted against him.
The outcome has plunged the DPK into turmoil, with lawmakers of its dominant faction calling the unidentified dissenters "enemies within" and vowing to purge them.
With a court set to decide whether to arrest Lee on Tuesday, Park Kwang-on, the floor leader of the party, offered to resign to take responsibility for failing to unite all DPK lawmakers.
At a DPK Supreme Council meeting, Friday, Rep. Jung Chung-rae lambasted those who voted against Lee for "selling out on their own leader."
"They basely betrayed (the party) and pushed Lee into a den of vice by denying him after he was elected to the post with overwhelming support," Jung said. "They would constantly try to shake his leadership, but we, Supreme Council members, will continue to stand by his side."
The general elections, scheduled to be held early next year, is a factor that is deepening the rift within the DPK. With the party leader having profound influence over candidate nominations, lawmakers and other politicians who do not have an amicable relationship with Lee view him as a big hurdle to their election bids.
Speaking of the possibility of the DPK's leadership change before the elections, Jung, a staunch loyalist of the chairman, said there is no such possibility.
Jung Sung-ho, another lawmaker close to the chairman, said Lee should not step down from the post even if that means he serves the role behind bars.
"Whether he is arrested or not, Lee should assert his leadership by uniting the party," Rep. Jung said on an MBC radio program on Thursday. "His resignation would put the party in chaos as he is backed by 70 to 80 percent of DPK supporters."
Their defiant position reflects the sentiment of the party's radical members, who attempted to break into the Assembly building following the vote while waving signs saying "Arrest the lawmakers who supported the motion" or "R.I.P. Democratic Party of Korea." The next day, a death threat was posted online by an unknown person, who targeted 14 DPK lawmakers who did not tow the party line. This case is now under police investigation.
Although at least 29 DPK lawmakers voted to strip Lee of immunity from potential arrest, no one has dared to openly mention the need for a leadership change ― presumably due to fears of being labeled as a turncoat by ardent party members.
Lee is accused of committing breach of trust worth 20 billion won ($15.06 million) by giving special treatment to a private developer in the Baekhyeon-dong district development project in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, between 2014 and 2015, when he was the city's mayor.
He is also suspected of asking Ssangbangwool Group, an apparel maker, to illegally transfer $8 million to Pyongyang through his deputy to facilitate his visit there as Gyonggi governor between 2019 and 2020, in an alleged attempt to elevate his political profile. Lee has denied any wrongdoing.
There are several other criminal allegations facing Lee, who has been on a hunger strike to protest what he calls policy failures by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, including a lack of effort to stop Japan's Fukushima wastewater release.
Faced with criticism for hiding behind his immunity from arrest as a lawmaker, Lee had previously said he was willing to give up the privilage because he was confident of his innocence. But on Wednesday, he changed his stance and called on DPK lawmakers to vote against the motion.
In a statement on Friday, Lee urged all party members and the public to be united in a fight against the Yoon administration, saying he would try his best to improve the party through reforms ― a message suggesting that he would not resign.
Judge Yoo Chang-hoon is expected to review the arrest warrant for Lee at the Seoul Central District Court. A decision is expected be made late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
But the court hearing could be postponed due to Lee's deteriorating health. The DPK chief has been hospitalized since Monday.