The Koreas

Amid Legal Troubles, Lee Jae-myung Tightens Grip on South Korea’s Opposition Party

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Amid Legal Troubles, Lee Jae-myung Tightens Grip on South Korea’s Opposition Party

South Korean politics is becoming messier as the proxy war between Lee and President Yoon continues.

Amid Legal Troubles, Lee Jae-myung Tightens Grip on South Korea’s Opposition Party

South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung arrives to attend a hearing on his arrest warrant on corruption charges at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 26, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

It’s not an exaggeration to say that President Yoon Suk-yeol’s archnemesis is Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP). Their feud goes back to early last year, when they were vying for presidency. There couldn’t have been two candidates more diametrically opposed in their upbringing and world views. To this day, they are fighting proxy wars through parliament and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Born into a poor farming family, Lee couldn’t go to middle and high school, instead working in a factory. His childhood was marked by foraging for food and abuse in his workplace, where a press jammed his arm and crippled it permanently. Still, he went to night school and eventually to university to study law. Lee made his name as a human rights lawyer, representing those sharing similar backgrounds of poverty and victimization. He then entered politics, becoming mayor of Seongnam, a satellite city south of Seoul, in 2010 and governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s most populous province, in 2017.

On the flip side, Yoon was everything that Lee wasn’t. A side-by-side comparison of two childhood photos shows as much. His hair trimmed nicely, Yoon is wearing a neat navy jacket over a starched white collar decked with a red bow tie. Meanwhile, Lee is dwarfed under his moppy hair and a baggy factory uniform.

Yoon grew up in an affluent family and neighborhood, making it hard for him to shed the image of a pampered son of two professors. Unlike Lee, who studied frantically to escape poverty, Yoon took his time – he took the bar exam nine times, finally becoming a prosecutor at the age of 34.

As a prosecutor, Yoon made headlines by going after big shots, including two former conservative presidents. His investigations led to the arrests of Park Geun-hye in 2017 and Lee Myung-bak the following year. Gratified, former President Moon Jae-in of the DP promoted Yoon to the top job, the omnipotent prosecutor-general.

Yet, even Moon wasn’t exempt from Yoon’s declaration that “I’m not loyal to anyone.” The two soon chafed at each other. Yoon recalibrated his crosshairs to Moon’s justice ministers and openly defied the president’s effort to reform the prosecution service’s distended political power. Yoon resigned in March 2021 and filed his candidacy for the People Power Party’s presidential primary.

Leading up to the presidential election in March 2022, Lee’s and Yoon’s campaigns had fiercely warring narratives: Lee represented stability and continuity from Moon, while Yoon was bent on replacing “the incompetent and corrupt DP regime.” Yet, their campaigns were also reduced to mudslinging as they slandered each other’s family members – Lee’s son had a gambling addiction and the Yoons were fond of shamans.

Their barnstorming policies – and their gaffes – revealed the unbridgeable gap between the two. Lee wanted to introduce national basic income and raise taxes on land ownership, whereas Yoon believed that reversing everything done under Moon would restore the country back to kilter. Yoon’s careless remarks snubbing the poor and bashing women for the low fertility rate reflected his wish to dismantle Moon’s legacy.

Yoon won the presidency, but this ideological and policy divide anticipated the current stalemate. The National Assembly – controlled by the DP majority under Lee – is thwarting Yoon’s legislation. Yoon is trotting the globe making bold diplomatic statements, but at home, his influence is largely limited to executive arm-twisting rather than substantial legislative changes.

Yet Yoon packs quite a punch, thanks to his decades spent in prosecution service. The nation’s Prosecutor’s Office has long been the favorite tool for South Korean presidents to retaliate against their political foes – all the more so for Yoon, who used to call the shot for all the prosecutors. Lee is currently on trial for alleged abuse of power and graft dating back to his tenure as mayor of Seongnam, where he allegedly masterminded a venal scheme involving property investments. He also stands accused of attempting to wire millions of dollars to North Korea for a potential joint venture between Pyongyang and his Gyeonggi province.

Lee denies all allegations and two officials who oversaw the land deals committed suicide, clouding the whole tale. Of course, all this would have been swept under the rug had Lee become president and had the Prosecutor’s Office in his palm, which is why Lee denounces the Yoon administration’s “political prosecution” to “distort the truth.”

The Prosecutor’s Office has dedicated dozens of prosecutors to locking the opposition leader up and carried out hundreds of search and seizure. In September, as Lee went into a three-week hunger strike, they requested an arrest warrant to Seoul Central District Court.

South Korean legislators cannot be detained without parliamentary approval, but the vote on September 21 on allowing his arrest passed due to renegades within the DP. It was the first palpable sign of Lee’s slipping grip on the party reins.

The DP plunged into turmoil. Yet the court stretched a saving hand to Lee; it refused to issue his arrest warrant citing lack of evidence against Lee and insufficient risk of Lee destroying evidence.

The table has now turned. A purge awaits the small faction within the DP that bristled against Lee’s authority and voted to arrest him. They argue that the DP is plagued by “Lee fandom,” sidelining those not swooning over Lee’s leadership as conservatives and condoning Lee’s unilateralism. The DP has now rolled up its sleeve to identify and weed out these non-Lee elements. In October, having recovered from his fasting and avoided arrest, Lee is already making appearances at the National Assembly trailing his entourage to pass legislation unfavorable to the Yoon administration.

Lee’s revival offers Yoon and his PPP both pros and cons. On the one hand, the DP has to continue trudging through to the 2024 general election with Lee’s baggage, providing Yoon with ammo to pound the whole party with legal charges against Lee and his seemingly totalitarian leadership. That could put off some DP supporters, and the party might lose parliamentary seats due to the likely departure of centrist DP members not enamored of Lee.

On the other hand, the DP under Lee’s orchestration will continue to scupper Yoon’s domestic agenda. And it will leave Yoon with a bitter taste at having failed to remove his major political obstacle. Lee represents the continuation of Moon’s legacy, which Yoon swore to bulldoze, and the fact that Lee continues to enjoy Moon’s support is surely an eyesore for Yoon. As Lee lay haggard in his fasting bed, Moon held his hands and urged the DP to get their house in order, insinuating his unconditional support for Lee. It meant a lot – both to Lee and Yoon. Moon earned the highest approval rating for an outgoing president in history and this can still sway some voters’ perception of Lee and Yoon.

As the Lee-Yoon rivalry rages on, the DP and the PPP have staked everything on next year’s general election. Whether or not South Koreans will unseat the DP majority remains as hazy as the political investigation into Lee’s corruption scandal.