The Supreme Court has become the target of more criticism since it ruled Thursday in favor of Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, saying he had not violated the election law.
The highest court overturned a lower court’s decision and found Lee not guilty of spreading false information during a TV debate in the run-up to the gubernatorial election.
The ruling Democratic Party welcomed the judgment, calling it a brave and historic decision that protected freedom of expression.
The decision saved Lee’s governorship and his political future as a potential presidential candidate for the ruling party. It also saved the Democratic Party, which had already lost two potential presidential contenders since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017, from losing another.
Former South Chungcheong Province Gov. Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for raping his secretary on numerous occasions by abusing his authority. The late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon took his own life earlier this month as he was facing sexual harassment allegations.
“The Supreme Court’s latest ruling is historically meaningful in that it emphasized freedom of expression, the most important element in election campaigns,” said Democratic Party Leader Lee Hae-chan in a meeting Thursday.
“It is important to focus on the Supreme Court’s ruling that it is not desirable for election campaign activities to be under the scope of investigation.”
But after the ruling was announced, several opposition party members called the decision biased, questioning the legal understanding of freedom of expression that Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su cited in his ruling.
“It is more important to guarantee participants freedom of expression during a fierce debate when they are free of legal responsibilities,” Kim said, adding that it was impossible to hold a politician accountable for every inaccurate statement.
Kim said Lee could not be seen as having spread false information as he had not acted deliberately and aggressively with the intention of spreading it to a wider audience.
Rep. Kwon Young-se of the United Future Party denounced the ruling, saying the court had not considered the potentially devastating effects of spreading false information and focused too much on freedom of expression.
“I myself am a politician and a lawyer, but it is hard to understand the bizarre logic behind this ruling of limiting the application scope of spreading false information for ‘freedom of discussion,’” Kwon said in a Facebook post Thursday.
He warned that politicians shouldn’t trust the latest decision as leeway to speak too freely, saying the applicability of the ruling is also going to be “very limited.”
Former Rep. Kim Jin-tae of the United Future Party also denounced the decision, saying in a commentary that the court had created an unjust precedent by changing its standards just to save Lee.
“No matter how passive or simple it was, a lie is a lie,” he wrote. “The court changed the definition inside a dictionary and spoke nonsensical gibberish.” He added that it was unfortunate that the ruling resulted from a 7-5 vote, lamenting that one more vote would have rightly stripped Lee of his governorship and his political chances.
Nonaffiliated Rep. Hong Jun-pyo said South Korea’s judicial branch had become too biased and was well on track to adopting Third World country standards.
“I learned from this ruling for the first time that there is a distinction between aggressive and passive in the act of spreading false information,” Hong said.
“Thinking that this bizarre logic will resurface when sentencing (South Gyeongsang Province Gov.) Kim Kyoung-soo and (former Justice Minister) Cho Kuk, I can’t help but worry that the Korean judicial system is turning into the system in Venezuela.”
Former Gyeonggi Province Gov. Kim Moon-soo added force to the criticism, saying Lee would not have survived without the grace of the Supreme Court’s chief justice and the legally destructive ruling of the highest court.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org