As he departed the Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon, Lee Seok-ki sought to convince observers that his conviction represented nothing less than the death of Korean democracy and rule of law. Shouting that “in our country” justice has died, Lee’s defiant stance against the Park Geun-hye administration – he would like you to believe – is all that stands between South Korea and a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule. Fortunately for everyone else, the reality is different.
The Supreme Court judgment was the latest of four involving Lee: three against Lee and a group of other political officials, and one against the now defunct Unified Progressive Party of which they had been a part.
In February last year, Suwon District Court found Lee guilty on all charges: most importantly, of leading an underground political “Revolutionary Organization (RO)” and plotting to destroy key pieces of infrastructure in the event of war with North Korea. He apparently believed that such a war was imminent when, in May 2013, he convened a meeting of roughly 130 people at a location in western Seoul. An informant’s recording of the meeting formed the backbone of the case against him. Lee was imprisoned for 12 years and stripped of his civic rights – the right to vote and stand for public office – for 10.
However, Seoul High Court saw things differently. While it accepted that Lee was guilty of encouraging acts of insurrection – agitation – in August it found him innocent of the most serious charge, naeran eummo, or plotting a rebellion, for which the burden of proof is much higher. It requires, among other things, that the accused be capable of carrying out his or her threats. Unconvinced that the required standards had been met, the court reduced his prison sentence to nine years with civic rights withdrawn for seven.
Then came December, when the Constitutional Court ordered the total dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party. By 8 to 1, the justices concluded that the UPP was being led by the RO, and that it was contrary to the basic tenets of a democratic society. The court ordered the confiscation of the party’s assets and stripped its senior lawmakers of their positions in the National Assembly.
In the event that the RO did not exist, then it goes without saying that it could not have been running anything
As we know, yesterday the Supreme Court issued its final judgment against Lee, upholding the High Court verdict.
The problem – if there is one – is that the Supreme Court concluded that there is “no concrete evidence” of the existence of the “RO” that Lee had been accused of leading. This is not a matter for Lee’s conviction for agitation, which is reasonably sound. But it is an issue for the Constitutional Court case that led to the dissolution of the UPP; in that case, the court accepted that the RO was de facto running the UPP. In the event that the RO did not exist, then it goes without saying that it could not have been running anything. Reporting the decision, the left-leaning Hankyoreh declared, “Supreme Court negates existence of RO… swaying legitimacy of Constitutional Court decision.”
The Constitutional Court maintains that the “UPP case is different from the criminal case against Assemblyman Lee, in that a completely different standard of judgment applies.” This is doubtless true, but the nuance made no difference to Kim Mi-hee, one of the UPP’s five former lawmakers. Building on the Hankyoreh headline, she told the media at a roadside protest at the end of the Supreme Court case, “We will do everything we can legally to get a new judgment that rectifies the incorrect ruling of the Constitutional Court.”
NO FUTURE IN THE UPP
All of which seems disingenuous at best when we recall the events of May 12, 2012. On that Saturday afternoon, rank-and-file members of the so-called “mainstream faction” of the UPP (the hard left faction led by Lee Seok-ki and party co-chair Lee Jung-hee) violently broke up a mass meeting of the UPP central committee at a convention center in Ilsan. They did this, it is argued, to stop two of the three co-chairs of the party – Shim Sang-jung and Rhyu Si-min, progressives drawn from moderate political traditions with no links to North Korea – pursuing the withdrawal of candidates who had been elected via a rigged party primary. Lee Seok-ki was one of those who stood to benefit from the electoral fraud. Had Shim and Rhyu succeeded, it would have threatened his electoral prospects, as well as those of a youthful starlet of progressive politics, Kim Jae-yeon, and Lee Jung-hee herself. In the end, the violence achieved its goal. The meeting broke up inconclusively; Rhyu had his glasses broken in the scuffle, and, within days, the moderate faction(s) of the party all withdrew – leaving the “mainstream faction” in complete control.
This is why the furor over the dissolution of the UPP is wrongheaded; indicative of a tendency to get hot under the collar over events that are arguably of little concern. The rule of law is worth protecting, of course, but that’s partly the point; the events in Ilsan marked the culmination of a number of clear violations of the Political Party Law, sufficient to undermine the legitimacy of the UPP and force its moderate factions to quit. Questions can also be raised over the dubious application of the National Security Law on occasion; not least in the case of Shin Eun-mi, who would have been charged with violating it were she not an American citizen – and thus easier to deport than detain. However, the Carter Center was foolish to issue a statement condemning its use in the Lee trial, since the main charges against him were nothing to do with the National Security Law at all.
The UPP…had been eviscerated as a political party by its own membership long before the Constitutional Court got involved
In fact, looking back to the media in May 2012 we find that it was not only the conservative right that was calling for the death of the UPP. “What this incident makes clear is that progressive politics is in desperate need of reorganization. There is no future for it under the current UPP system,” an editorial in the Hankyoreh declared in disgust. “No progress can be made without cutting out this festering wound.” Which is exactly what did happen, except that it was the judiciary holding the knife.
Lee Seok-ki’s defense, which rightly got his sentence reduced from 12 years to nine, was that he was not actually capable of making good on his words. Hardly the stuff of martyrs. The UPP, for its part, had been eviscerated as a political party by its own membership long before the Constitutional Court got involved. Even progressive politicians and the left-wing media had largely abandoned it. If you go past the rhetorical simplicity of “rigid anti-communist administration run by the daughter of a dictator” vs. “red-under-the-bed North Korean-style socialism by the back door” – inaccurate conceptions both – there is not all that much left to really complain about.
Main picture: dom brassy draws comics, Flickr Creative Commons
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