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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on April 19)

All News 07:14 April 19, 2023

Apply same yardstick
Lee apologizes over vote buying scandal, not yet over allegations involving himself

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has seldom acknowledged allegations unfavorable to it. But regarding alleged vote buying at its national convention in May 2021, its leader Lee Jae-myung apologized five days after the allegations became known. He also asked for a fair and quick investigation.

The party has covered up for its lawmakers in corruption allegations, condemning the prosecution for suppressing the party through what it called politically motivated investigations.

Lee seems to have shifted from denial to apology because hard-to-deny phone conversation recordings have been disclosed. If convincing evidence had not become public, Lee would not have apologized and the party would be still attacking the prosecution.

About 10 current lawmakers and dozens of high-ranking officials of the party are said to be mentioned in phone conversations that Lee Jung-geun, the former deputy secretary general of the party, recorded.

The recordings detail circumstances of the distribution of envelopes containing cash to voters in party leadership election. In a phone dialogue, Kang Rae-gu, the former head of the Association of Public Institution Auditors, says to Lee Jung-geun, "Ten envelopes are ready. Please have them delivered to Rep. Youn (Kwan-suk)." In another, three Democratic Party lawmakers say to Youn, "Please give us (money), too." Some 30,000 recordings are said to exist.

Party chair Lee also said he had asked his predecessor Song Young-gil to return to Korea.

Song was elected as party leader at the convention in question. He has been in Paris as a visiting professor at the ESCP Business School since December.

Song resigned as party leader in March 2022 shortly after Lee lost the presidential election. Lee successfully ran in a by-election in June for Song's National Assembly seat as Song ran for Seoul mayor. There was no nomination race. At that time, Song and Lee were suspected of making a secret pact. Lee went on to run for party leader in August 2022 and was elected.

In a sense, Song was Lee's political benefactor.

Song reportedly said he would clarify his position on the scandal in a news conference on Saturday in Paris. He denies knowing anything about the allegations. He defined the entire scandal as an individual deviation by the former deputy secretary general Lee, but his argument is unconvincing. Some of his former campaign officials are suspected of distributing money to voters. The recorded conversations are very concrete.

Rumors have it that Song was helped by Lee supporters in the convention. Possible connections between the two sides need to be investigated.

Song must return home as soon as possible and cooperate with the prosecution's investigation.

Vote buying incapacitates elections, which are the root of democracy. The bad practice must be uprooted. Separately from investigations by the prosecution, the party needs to conduct its own probe. But talks of an internal probe have dissipated. Of course, the scandal is not an issue that can be settled only by the party's internal investigation. But a normal political party should be able to conduct its own fact-finding inquiry. It is possible the party has lost the ability to cleanse itself.

If the party wants to deal with the scandal strictly, it must not attempt to preclude pre-trial detention of its lawmakers. In Korea, the court cannot detain a member of the National Assembly if the Assembly votes against it.

The question remains whether the party can bring itself to do so. Lee himself is facing multiple charges. He has been indicted over his connection to a land corruption scandal, allegedly making false statements during the presidential election campaign and soliciting third-party bribery. Furthermore, he already avoided a detention hearing through an Assembly vote.

He asked for the investigation of those involved in the vote buying scandal, but his words may ring hollow. He apologized over the vote buying scandal, but not over the allegations against himself. He must apply the same yardstick to himself and as he does to other lawmakers.


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