Rejection of warrant gives opposition leader chance to contest next election

A Seoul court on Wednesday rejected an arrest warrant for the leader of the Republic of Korea’s main opposition party, giving the former presidential candidate a chance to steer the party’s fight in the nation’s next general election in 2024.

The Seoul Central District Court denied the arrest warrant sought for Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung, who has been accused of breach of trust, bribery and other charges related to a real estate development project and involvement in an unauthorized remittance to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The decision was announced in the early hours of Wednesday after a questioning for over nine hours the previous day.

It was the first time in the country’s history that a main opposition party chief appeared in an arrest warrant hearing.

“Considering the degree of necessity of guaranteeing the defendant’s right to defend and the degree of concern about destroying evidence, it is difficult to say that there is a reason and necessity for arrest that excludes the principle of investigation without detention,” Seoul Central District Court Judge Yoo Chang-hoon said.

Lee, who appeared in court for the hearing with a cane, expressed his appreciation of the judiciary for “safeguarding constitutional order”. “I would like to express my deep gratitude to the judiciary that has proved itself as the last bastion of human rights,” Lee told reporters after the court’s decision was announced.

Lee has been undergoing medical treatment to recover from his 24-day hunger strike that ended on Sept 23. The strike was held in protest against the policies of the government of ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The court’s rejection does not mean Lee is innocent, and it is just part of the process of investigation, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon told reporters on Wednesday.

“The prosecution has been investigating fairly according to the procedure and will continue to do so,” said Han, adding that 21 people were arrested over related issues.

Increased confrontation

An escalated confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties is expected following the court’s rejection.

Hong Ihk-pyo, who was just elected the floor leader of the DP on Tuesday, said at a meeting of the party’s Supreme Council that ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol should apologize over the “unreasonable political investigation”. He also demanded the dismissal of Han.

In response, the ruling People Power Party demanded an apology from Lee for “the fact of the crime “and his resignation from the party’s leadership.

With the arrest warrant petition dismissed, Lee is expected to gain momentum to strengthen his role within the party as well as to heat up the competition for the general election next year. Lee lost to Yoon by a slender margin in the previous election.

As the court’s explanation for the dismissal of the arrest warrant petition indicates, it is expected that it will be difficult to maintain the indictment and convict Lee based on objective evidence as the prosecution hopes, said Cha Jaekwon, a professor of political science at the ROK’s Pukyong National University.

Cha said Lee’s trial, which will continue for two to three years, seems very likely to result in a not-guilty verdict. “In that context, it is no exaggeration to say that the decision to dismiss is, in fact, an important judicial judgment that brought Lee Jae-myung one step closer to becoming the next president (of the ROK) … as some claimed,” Cha told the media.

The approval rating for the DP was 34.4 percent while that for the PPP was 27 percent, according to a survey released by YTN TV on Wednesday. The survey was conducted for two days starting Sept 25, the day before the hearing on Lee’s arrest warrant.