South Korea lawmakers vote to pave way for opposition leader’s arrest

By Hyunsu Yim

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament in a surprise move on Thursday voted to allow prosecutors to serve an arrest warrant against the main opposition leader who is facing an investigation into bribery and breach of duty charges.

The vote means Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung will face court to contest his arrest over the charges.

The motion was accepted by a margin of 149 to 136, with six abstained votes and four invalid in a secret ballot with 295 votes cast.

Separately, parliament voted to dismiss Prime Minister Han Duck-soo for a slew of government policy failures including the deadly Halloween crush, inadequate response to heavy rains and flooding, and the much-criticised World Scout Jamboree.

It is the first time such a motion has passed against a prime minister in South Korea though it is not binding. President Yoon Suk Yeol is expected to exercise his power to reject it.

Lee was hospitalised on Monday while on a hunger strike protesting what he called policy failures by Yoon’s government, including economic mismanagement and not doing enough to stop Japan’s Fukushima wastewater release. The justice minister had described the strike as a bid to evade his arrest.

Members of parliament have immunity against arrest when the assembly is in session unless its members vote to rescind it with a simple majority. Lee’s Democratic Party holds 167 seats in the 297-member parliament.

Lee is accused of asking a company to illegally transfer $8 million to North Korea when he was the governor of Gyeonggi Province.

He is also accused of breaching his duty over losses of 20 billion won ($15 million) by a municipal development corporation during his time as mayor of the city of Seongnam.

Lee has denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “fiction” and a “political conspiracy”.

He and other democrats have criticised the charges against him as a political witch hunt, even as the investigations began under a former president from their own party.

Thousands of Lee’s supporters gathered outside parliament hours before the vote and called for rejecting the motion.

Angered by the result, they unsuccessfully sought to enter parliament and then the Democratic Party headquarters, decrying not only ruling party members but also democrats who voted to pass the motion, prompting police to block some streets and nearby metro exits.

Lee narrowly lost to Yoon, a former chief prosecutor, in the presidential election last year.

On Wednesday, Lee urged lawmakers to vote against the motion and stop what he called “prosecution dictatorship” by the Yoon government in a social media post, despite having promised earlier not to use his parliamentary immunity.

“Over 300 raids have been conducted (by the prosecution). But nothing has come out,” Lee said.

Lee was not present in the plenary session to vote. He has been on hunger strike since Aug. 31. President Yoon is currently in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

South Korea’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for April next year.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; editing by Jason Neely and Bernadette Baum)