The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and its chairman Lee Jae-myung narrowly avoided a crisis after a court rejected an arrest warrant sought for Lee early Wednesday, which could have dealt a devastating blow to his political career and the party's campaign for next April's general election.
With the DPK striving to blame the Yoon Suk Yeol administration for persecution, Lee's grip on the party appears to be strengthening, and the confrontation between the ruling bloc and the opposition is likely to escalate further.
The Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday morning rejected the arrest warrant sought for Lee on charges of breach of trust, bribery, and other offenses related to his alleged involvement in a scandal-ridden land development project and an illegal cash remittance to North Korea by a South Korean company.
The warrant review gained keen attention as it was the first time that the leader of the main opposition party had to show up at such a hearing.
"I am deeply grateful to the judiciary for proving itself as the last bastion of human rights," Lee told reporters as he left a detention center in Gyeonggi Province at 3:50 a.m. After speaking at the court review, Lee was moved to the detention center until the judge's decision was made.
"I hope that both the ruling and opposition parties, as well as the government, never forget the fact that politics is always about caring for the people's lives and pioneering the future of the nation. It is time to return to the true essence of politics, which is not a war to eliminate opponents, but a competition to see who can better fulfill their roles for the sake of the people and the nation."
After his defeat in the presidential election last year, Lee has been struggling with the prosecution's investigations into suspicions surrounding him. Lee became a lawmaker in June last year and took the helm of the party two months later. But those moves were viewed as an attempt to avoid arrest by using privileges given to lawmakers and a party head.
Against this backdrop, the court's dismissal came as a turning point for Lee to counter attacks by the ruling bloc, the prosecution, and some anti-Lee faction members within his own party. The rejection of the arrest warrant also gives a boost to Lee's claims so far that the investigation is politically motivated.
Following the dismissal of the warrant, prosecutors said that the decision could have been affected by Lee's political status.
"There seems to be a stark difference between the prosecution and the court regarding the decision and its grounds," Prosecutor-General Lee One-seok told reporters Wednesday.
"Although the court recognized the prosecution's claims of illegalities, it apparently focused on providing defense rights to Lee based on his status as the chairman of a political party." He added that judicial matters should not be influenced by political factors.
"An arrest warrant is nothing more than part of the process of investigating crimes, and the dismissal does not mean innocence," Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said.
"Even if a politician commits a crime, the judiciary does not and should not become political," Han added. "I believe the prosecution will continue its investigation without being swayed."
The DPK is gearing up for an offensive against the prosecution and the ruling bloc, demanding a public apology from the president and the dismissal of the justice minister.
"I strongly urge President Yoon to stop using the prosecution to incapacitate politics, and restore politics with an attitude of respecting the National Assembly and the main opposition party," the DPK's new floor leader Hong Ihk-pyo said during a supreme council meeting. "And this will begin with the president's official apology and dismissal of Minister Han."
Hong, a member of the pro-Lee faction within the DPK, was elected a day earlier, claiming he will lead the party to victory in the general election under Lee's leadership.
DPK lawmakers also released a statement saying, "the Yoon administration's tyranny to attempt to kill Chairman Lee has failed" and "the arrest warrant was an act of violence and political persecution to cover up the failures of the administration."
The DPK's criticism of the government is anticipated to pick up momentum after the Sept. 28-Oct. 3 Chuseok holiday.
The first battle will take place when the Assembly votes on whether to approve Yoon's nomination of Lee Gyun-ryong as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court on Oct. 6. Given that the DPK holds a majority in the Assembly, the party alone can reject the nomination.
The confrontation is anticipated to peak at the National Assembly's audit of the government, which will begin on Oct. 10, with the DPK heralding scrutiny of the government's policies over the past year.
Scenarios for next year's general election also became more complex after Lee avoided arrest.
Initially, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) sought to take advantage of Lee's arrest, but the party is now taking on an urgent task of exploring its own tactics to secure swing voters.
"I express my strongest regret at the court's dismissal of Chairman Lee's warrant," PPP Chairman Kim Gi-hyeon said Wednesday. "Today, it was again revealed that the judiciary was contaminated by some politically motivated judges. The stark reality of judges disregarding even fundamental ethics based on their political inclinations has become apparent to the public."
As the court rejected Lee's warrant, the DPK earned a chance to pull itself together from its ever-deepening infighting between the pro-Lee and anti-Lee factions. However, it remains uncertain whether the pro-Lee faction, which is the party's mainstream, will end up punishing some anti-Lee faction members who voted for the National Assembly's consent to arrest the chairman.
Meanwhile, the presidential office did not release a message on the warrant dismissal, in an apparent attempt to distance the president from political matters.