Riot police on Wednesday stood guard around South Korea’s parliament where politicians were set to vote for the arrest of a leftist lawmaker accused of plotting an armed insurrection in support of Pyongyang.
Rival political parties were expected to join forces to approve the arrest of Representative Lee Seok-Ki, of the minor opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP), on charges of sedition.
Lee is accused of leading a secretive leftist group pledging allegiance to communist North Korea that planned attacks on the South’s infrastructure, including communication lines and railways, in the event of war with the North.
Hundreds of police, including riot officers carrying shields, stood guard outside the National Assembly ahead of the vote, with riot vans forming a blockade across access roads.
A group of about 200 UPP members were staging a sit-down protest on the steps leading to the doors of the assembly building, chanting slogans accusing the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of fabricating the charges.
As a lawmaker, Lee is immune from arrest while the assembly is in session meaning his detention is subject to parliamentary consent.
The request for arrest approval was made by the government, and the main opposition Democratic Party said Wednesday it would cooperate with the ruling conservatives in passing the motion.
“We’ll never tolerate anyone who is willing to fight on the side of the enemy in the event of a war,” Kim Han-Gil, head of the Democratic Party, said.
The NIS last Wednesday raided UPP party offices and arrested three of Lee’s supporters on charges of seeking to instigate an armed insurrection in support of North Korea.
Lee described the sedition charges as “sheer fabrication” and an effort by the NIS to “frame progressive and democratic forces”.
Sedition charges have been extremely rare since South Korea introduced democratic elections in the late 1980s, and political analysts suggested the timing of the NIS action was likely to raise eyebrows.
A statement from the UPP denounced what it called a joint campaign by the presidential Blue House and the NIS to cloud the issue of an election-rigging scandal that has spawned large candle-light street protests in Seoul in recent weeks.
The scandal has seen the arrest of former NIS head Won Sei-Hoon for allegedly ordering agents to run an online smear campaign against opposition presidential candidate Moon Jae-In of the Democratic Party.
Moon was narrowly beaten in the December poll by the ruling party candidate Park Geun-Hye.
It is not the first time Lee has faced subversion charges.
He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to two and a half years for working with an underground political party in the 1990s. He received a presidential pardon later in the same year.
It remains to be seen whether the NIS has secured solid evidence to make charges stand up in court.
The service, formerly known as the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, was tainted by several cases of human rights abuse under the country’s former authoritarian government.
South Korea is still technically at war with the North, as the Korean War ended in a ceasefire in 1953 rather than a peace treaty. AFP