Lee Jun-seok’s Party Membership Suspended: An Unusually Heavy Penalty for a Ruling Party Leader

2022.07.08 15:25
Park Sun-bong, Jung Dae-yeon, Mun Gwang-ho

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok announces his position on his way to a meeting of the party’s central ethics committee at the National Assembly on July 7. Joint press photographers

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok announces his position on his way to a meeting of the party’s central ethics committee at the National Assembly on July 7. Joint press photographers

On July 8, the People Power Party (PPP) central ethics committee decided to suspend the party membership of leader Lee Jun-seok for six months. During the suspension, Lee will not be able to attend to the duties of the party leader. The decision is seen as a severe penalty. The ethics committee believed that Lee ordered his close aide and political affairs director, Kim Cheol-geun, to destroy evidence in order to conceal his alleged sexual bribery and decided that this violated his obligation to maintain dignity. The unprecedented penalty of a ruling party leader has stirred greater turbulence in the ruling party, which was already in turmoil even before the ethics committee was convened. The People Power Party is divided on Lee’s penalty, and it is likely to lead to internal discord. The party’s ethics committee decided to suspend Kim Cheol-geun’s party membership for two years.

The PPP ethics committee gathered at 7 p.m. Thursday and deliberated the issue for nearly 8 hours until 2:50 a.m. Friday. After the meeting, Lee Yang-hee, chair of the ethics committee said to the reporters, “We decided on a six-month suspension of Lee’s party membership.” The reason for the penalty was Article 4 of the Ethics Committee Regulation, which stipulates that a party member should not make comments or take actions that can tarnish the reputation of the party or that are quite different from public sentiment. Lee Yang-hee mentioned the allegation that Lee abetted an attempt to destroy evidence through Kim Cheol-geun, his political affairs chief, and said, “It was hard to believe that Kim Cheol-geun alone decided to promise a whopping 700 million won when it was not his affair, and after a comprehensive review of all such factors, we decided that Kim’s explanation was not credible.” However, the ethics committee chair went on to say “The ethics committee did not make a judgment on the alleged sexual bribery,” and added, “We made the decision after taking into consideration Lee’s contribution and devotion to the party.”

The reason for the latest disciplinary action was that Lee Jun-seok violated his duty to maintain dignity. On April 21, when the ethics committee began taking action against Lee, the committee presented the reason, “violation of the duty to maintain dignity in connection with allegations of abetting to destroy evidence.” On June 22, the committee deliberated the penalty for Lee, but failed to reach a conclusion. This day, the ethics committee gathered for the second time and finalized the disciplinary action against the party leader. As for Kim Cheol-geun, the committee decided on a two-year suspension of his party membership. Thus, Kim will not be able to run for public office as a member of the People Power Party until the parliamentary election in 2024.

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok enters the conference room after a tearful announcement of his position ahead of his appearance before the party’s central ethics committee, which gathered to deliberate Lee’s alleged act of abetting to destroy evidence of his sexual bribery at the National Assembly on the evening of July 7. Kweon Ho-wook, Senior reporter

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok enters the conference room after a tearful announcement of his position ahead of his appearance before the party’s central ethics committee, which gathered to deliberate Lee’s alleged act of abetting to destroy evidence of his sexual bribery at the National Assembly on the evening of July 7. Kweon Ho-wook, Senior reporter

The six-month suspension of party membership is a severe penalty. Lee Jun-seok will not be able to tend to the work of a party leader during this period.

Lee stated before the committee’s decision that he would not step down even if he was penalized. Lee’s term as the leader of the party ends in June 2023, which means he still has nearly six months remaining even when excluding the suspension period. Previously, in 2019 when the PPP was the Liberty Korea Party, Kim Soon-rye, a member of the party’s supreme council, had her party membership suspended for three months after calling the activists in the May 18 pro-democracy movement in Gwangju “a group of monsters,” but she served until the end of her term as supreme council member following the suspension. Lee is likely to remain until the end of his term based on this precedent. He may also take immediate legal action, such as applying for a temporary injunction against the ethics committee’s decision.

Since Lee is not expected to accept the disciplinary action, strife in the party seems inevitable. Lawmakers and other party members who had been critical of Lee could use the suspension of his party membership as an excuse to demand his resignation. An all-out battle more intense than the conflicts before the ethics committee decision is expected. The disorder surrounding Lee is bound to spread throughout the entire ruling bloc including President Yoon Suk-yeol. Lee’s punishment is interpreted as part of a highly political power struggle, and President Yoon and his key aides, referred to as “Yoonhaekgwan” in Korean, are mentioned as those behind this power struggle. One PPP member said to the reporter this day, “There is probably no one who thinks that the ethics committee is trying to identify facts anymore,” and added, “Since it has become close to a kangaroo court, there is bound to be people who oppose the committee’s decision.”

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