The highest court on Thursday ruled in favor of Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung in an election law violation trial, effectively saving his governorship as well as ambitions to contend in the race for the presidency.
The Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision that found him guilty of spreading false information during a TV debate in the runup to the 2018 gubernatorial election. The Suwon High Court had levied a fine of 3 million won ($2,500) on Lee, which, if finalized, would see him removed from office. Under local regulations, an election is ruled invalid if the winner is sentenced to prison or issued a fine of more than 1 million won.
“Even though Lee did not mention forcefully institutionalizing his brother in a televised debate, it is unreasonable to believe that he was spreading false information because he wasn’t under a legal obligation to make such facts public,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said in the ruling.
“For this reason, Lee’s comments can’t be penalized as an act of spreading false information.”
The Gyeonggi Province governor was not present for the ruling. In a Facebook post shortly afterward, Lee remarked the Supreme Court’s ruling was the “fair and right decision,” which assured his belief that “lies cannot win against the truth.”
“I am sorry to burden the people of Gyeonggi Province, my supporters and fellow members of the Democratic Party,” the governor wrote, adding that he and his staff will continue working to overcome the difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I will not forget that today’s result is a mandate from everyone to carry out the mission given to me,” he continued.
Until the Supreme Court ruling, Lee’s gubernatorial post had been at risk from him being indicted and tried on charges of abuse of power and violating the Public Official Election Act for spreading false information.
The charge of abuse of power concerns allegations he used his authority as the mayor of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, to institutionalize his now deceased brother against his will from April to August 2012. The alleged Public Official Election Act violation occurred in 2018 during a televised debate ahead of local elections where he stated that he had no part in his brother being admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Lee has claimed in a social media post in the past that it would be a constitutional violation to consider a lack of a statement to be a false statement.
With the top court’s decision Thursday, Lee is expected to begin in earnest preparations to win the presidential ticket of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. While former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon is considered the most likely presidential candidate for the ruling party, the Gyeonggi Province governor has a large support base and has been considered a potential candidate for some time.
In a recent Gallup poll, the governor was picked as the second most favored contender for the next presidency with 13 percent, following the former prime minister at 24 percent.
In response to Thursday’s ruling, the main opposition United Future Party asked Lee to now concentrate on helping the lives of Gyeonggi Province citizens, while questioning whether the top court’s decision was truly objective and impartial.
“Although the judiciary ruled Lee as not guilty on legal grounds, Lee is still guilty in political terms,” the conservative party’s spokesperson Bae June-young said in a statement.
“The scars he left on Gyeonggi Province and Korea citizens won’t go away easily. It is only the right way (for Lee) to humbly concentrate on governance in making up to the province’s people and the citizens.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org