Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung faces a desperate legal battle against prosecutors as a court is set to review his arrest warrant on Tuesday.
The review is pivotal for both Lee and prosecutors, because an arrest could jeopardize the embattled lawmaker's political career and also test the legitimacy of the prosecution's investigation.
The Seoul Central District Court and the DPK said the review of Lee's arrest warrant is scheduled for 10 a.m. The DPK said its chief will attend the review session to plead his innocence, despite his deteriorated health condition following a 24-day hunger strike.
Prosecutors have accused Lee of involvement in a scandal-ridden land development project in Baekhyeon-dong in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, and an illegal cash remittance to North Korea.
Last week, the National Assembly approved a request by prosecutors for parliamentary consent to arrest Lee. If he shows up in court, it will be the first time in Korea's constitutional history that the head of the main opposition party appears for a review of his arrest warrant.
A final decision by the court is expected on Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning.
Prosecutors have reportedly prepared over 1,600 pages of documents to support their criminal charges and convince the court of the necessity to arrest Lee. The DPK chief's legal team is also preparing to argue that the prosecution's investigation against the chairman is politically motivated.
An arrest warrant is issued when there are sufficient grounds to question the suspect's involvement in illegal activities, the risk of the suspect fleeing, and the possibility of destroying evidence. Given that Lee is the chief of the main opposition party and has a slim chance of fleeing, prosecutors are expected to focus on proving Lee's wrongdoing and highlighting the possibility of destroying evidence.
So far, prosecutors have accused Lee of providing illegal favors to a private developer named Kim In-seop, by changing the zoning purpose of the former site of the Korean Food Research Institute in Baekhyeon-dong. Kim, who is already under arrest and indicted, was Lee's campaign manager during the 2006 mayoral election.
Lee's attorneys argue that he never profited from the Baekhyeon-dong development project and that the DPK chief has not had contact with Kim since becoming mayor of Seongnam in 2010.
The cash remittance case is also expected to be a point of contention in establishing Lee's connections with underwear maker Ssangbangwool Group's Chairman Kim Seong-tae, who allegedly delivered $8 million to North Korea on behalf of the DPK leader.
Lee's side contends that prosecutors have failed to provide convincing evidence showing that the DPK chief and the Ssangbangwool Group chairman are more than just acquaintances. Prosecutors, however, argue that the two exchanged multiple phone calls and Kim donated more than 100 million won ($75,000) to Lee when he was a candidate for the DPK's presidential primary in 2021.
Prosecutors believe that Lee has attempted to destroy evidence.
During last week's National Assembly vote on Lee's arrest, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said, "The case involving Lee is an orchestrated crime involving multiple individuals and has raised significant concerns about the potential for evidence tampering through coercion or pressure on accomplices and witnesses, given Lee's political status and the investigation process."
Han also mentioned that it was revealed that Lee or his chief of staff coerced public officials involved in the Baekhyeon-dong project to make false statements alleging that the land ministry used its influence to alter the zoning of the construction site.
The minister also said that there were "irrational attempts to destroy evidence" in the investigation process of the cash remittance case, such as DPK members leaking internal prosecution documents and suspicious behaviors of lawyers representing Lee Hwa-young, a former vice-governor of Gyeonggi Province and Lee's key aide.
The former vice-governor, who has been detained over his alleged involvement in the cash remittance case, initially denied Lee's involvement, but changed his statement in June and admitted that the DPK chief played a role. He shifted his testimony again earlier this month saying Lee was not involved. During this process, Lee's lawyer was changed to a DPK member.
If the court decides to issue Lee's arrest warrant, the main opposition party is expected to see infighting between the chairman's supporters and opponents, which could damage the DPK's reputation before the general election in April next year.
Members of the party's mainstream pro-Lee faction are already discussing scenarios where the embattled chief continues to handle party affairs and recommends DPK candidates for the general election under detention. This appears to be aimed at creating an image of its leader suffering political persecution by the ruling bloc.
On the other hand, the court dismissing the arrest warrant would be an opportunity for Lee and the DPK to launch a political offensive against the ruling bloc and the prosecution, claiming that he was the target of a politically-motivated investigation. This would also clear much of the legal risks that Lee has faced over the past several years.