The Korea Herald

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Interrogation paused over opposition leader's health

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Sept. 10, 2023 - 15:02

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Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung stages a hunger strike on the 11th day of hunger strike in front of the National Assembly on Sunday. (Yonhap) Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung stages a hunger strike on the 11th day of hunger strike in front of the National Assembly on Sunday. (Yonhap)

The prosecution's interrogation of Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung as a suspect behind private sector money transfers to North Korea was paused Saturday after eight hours, owing to Lee’s health issues following nearly two weeks of an ongoing hunger strike.

"The interrogation began at 10:30 a.m., but we stopped at 6:40 p.m. upon Lee's request, citing his health condition," the Suwon District Prosecutors' Office said in a statement.

The main opposition party leader has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 31 in a show of protest against President Yoon Suk Yeol, blasting the conservative president for his passive stance toward Japan's release of radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The prosecutors' office had ambulances and medical staff ready in case of emergency.

As he walked out of the prosecutors' office without completing the interrogation at around 9:43 p.m. Saturday, Lee reiterated his stance that the prosecution was politically motivated.

"As expected, none of the evidence (that I am involved in the illegal money transfer) was presented," Lee told reporters. "All that (prosecutors) presented to me was hearsay ... I feel pity for the politically motivated prosecution for tampering with (evidence) to make (an innocent person) a criminal in a nonsensical way."

Lee added that it is Yoon's responsibility to "settle down the crisis of war on the Korean Peninsula."

The prosecution stated that Lee was uncooperative throughout the interrogation by giving unrelated answers to questions, and leaving the interrogation room without prosecutors' consent.

It also asked Lee to appear again at the office in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province for questioning on Tuesday.

Lee said he would appear at the office again for questioning as requested by the prosecution, calling himself a "loser" in a political battle against the administration led by the prosecutor general-turned-President Yoon. Lee and Yoon were both candidates for the 2022 presidential election, where Yoon defeated Lee by a narrow margin.

The political wrangling over the paused interrogation persisted Sunday.

"(Saturday's) interrogation showed that the prosecution is trying to do politics and bring shame upon (Lee), instead of doing its job of investigating the case," Democratic Party Rep. Park Chan-dae said in front of the National Assembly on Sunday as Lee's hunger strike marked its 11th day.

Rep. Yoo Sang-bum of the ruling People Power Party, however, blasted Lee for "obstructing the prosecutors' investigation... through a hunger strike that is hardly justifiable" in a briefing Sunday.

Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung walks out of the Suwon District Prosecutors' Office after the interrogation was paused on Saturday. (Yonhap) Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung walks out of the Suwon District Prosecutors' Office after the interrogation was paused on Saturday. (Yonhap)

It was the first interrogation of Lee by the prosecution over his alleged involvement in underwear maker Ssangbangwool's unauthorized money transfer of $8 million to North Korea in 2019 during Lee’s tenure as Gyeonggi Province governor.

The prosecution alleges that Ssangbangwool transferred funds -- which the prosecutors believe were supposed to be transferred by Gyeonggi Province -- to North Korean officials to finance a smart farming project in North Korea and to bear the potential cost of Lee's visit to North Korea, which did not come to fruition. Lee denied all the allegations.

Under Korean law, a money transfer to North Korea without authorization by the government is deemed a breach of the Foreign Exchange Transaction Act. Violators may face up to three years of imprisonment or fines of at most 300 million won ($224,000).

Chairman An Boo-soo of the Seoul-based Asia Pacific Exchange Association is another suspect of illegal money transfer in a separate deal between Gyeonggi Province and North Korea. An was found to have sent funds to officials of North Korea's sole ruling Workers' Party of Korea while Gyeonggi Province's project with North Korea was ongoing. In May, An was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for embezzlement and transferring money to North Korean officials without reporting to the state-run Bank of Korea.

Meanwhile, it was Lee's fifth appearance for questioning with the prosecution this year.

Lee is already standing trial on multiple breach of trust charges for allegedly allowing a state-run developer 489.5 billion won in financial gains, allowing other developers to profit improperly from a project, and of violating election laws by spreading false information.

Lee has yet to be arrested by the prosecution. In February, the Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly voted down the motion to arrest Lee.