SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s spy agency on Thursday arrested a leftist lawmaker accused of plotting a pro-North Korean rebellion in a case that has triggered a political and media firestorm in a nation where even praising the North can be considered a crime.
“It’s a fabrication by the National Intelligence Service,” Lee Seok-ki shouted at a police station in Suwon, a city just south of Seoul, before being driven to a detention facility.
South Korean lawmakers voted Wednesday to lift Lee’s legislative immunity against arrest. It was the legislature’s first passage of such a motion over rebellion charges.
Lee, a first-time lawmaker from the small United Progressive Party, has long been hounded by claims he supports North Korea. He is accused by the spy agency of holding a secret meeting in May of about 130 party members and discussing strikes on crucial South Korean infrastructure targets should war break out between the Koreas. He allegedly believed that high tensions between the two countries this past spring could lead to war.
Lee has denied the allegations, accusing the spy service of staging a communist “witch hunt” to divert criticism of illegal online campaigning it allegedly conducted ahead of last December’s presidential election. Critics say Lee had little to back up the alleged plot, and note that past military-backed governments frequently used rebellion charges to suppress political critics.
“South Korea’s democracy is dying, and our country is becoming the republic of the National Intelligence Service,” Lee said after Wednesday’s vote, according to his party.
The spy agency can investigate Lee for up to 10 days before handing him over to prosecutors, according to Suwon District Court spokesman Lee Jung-won. He said the court issued an arrest warrant for the lawmaker because there were worries that he might destroy evidence or flee.
The firestorm over the allegations illustrates the deep, long-running rift between the right and left that dates back to the division of the Korean Peninsula into a U.S.-backed, capitalistic South Korea and a Soviet-supported, socialist North Korea following the peninsula’s liberation from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule. In South Korea, praising North Korea can be punished by up to seven years in prison.
Conservatives in South Korea expressed fear over Lee’s case and pushed for the end of pro-North Korea groups.
“Lee Seok-ki’s rebellion plot is a shocking incident that clearly shows that North Korean followers are still spread throughout our society like poisonous mushrooms,” Choi Kyung Hwan, floor leader of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, told a party meeting Thursday. “We should root out … underground revolutionary groups.”
Lee’s party chief, Lee Jung-hee, told reporters Wednesday that the comments about attacking infrastructure were considered jokes during the meeting and participants didn’t take them seriously. She said some party members also brought their children to the group’s meetings, which showed that they were not a forum for rebellion.
Party officials had earlier said there was no such meeting and that many of the comments published by local media were fabricated or distorted.
This past spring, North Korea threatened nuclear war against Seoul and Washington in anger over toughened U.N. sanctions over its February nuclear test. Tensions have gradually eased since then.