SEONGNAM, Gyeonggi Province -- Main opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung appeared at a prosecutors office for questioning Tuesday, denying the bribery charges against him and accused authorities for pushing ahead with "a politically motivated investigation."
"Prosecutors have already made a conclusion to indict me whatever the circumstances might be," Lee told the media as he was entering the district public prosecutors' office in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.
Calling the probe a "political trap" set by the prosecution, Lee accused them of fabricating evidence to make it seem like the companies' advertising spending on a professional soccer team was an illicit donation.
"Prosecutors' logic can only be seen as a tool for charges based on fabricated evidence to remove a political opponent,” said Lee, surrounded by a group of some 40 Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers who accompanied him in a show of solidarity.
Some 900 police officers were dispatched at the scene to control a crowd of some 2,500, as a horde of pro-Lee supporters rallied in front of the prosecutors' office. Another group of conservative protesters across the street simultaneously called for Lee's punishment.
Lee faces charges of orchestrating a bribe to a third party during his tenure as mayor of Seongnam.
Under the Criminal Act in Korea, those -- especially public officials -- seeking to bribe a third party in connection with their duties can be punished with up to five years in jail. Those convicted of such a crime would also be disqualified from taking on any public duties.
Lee, a former human rights lawyer, was elected as mayor of Seongnam in 2010 and served two four-year terms.
Lee was accused of soliciting at least 17 billion won ($13.7 million) in contributions to soccer club Seongnam FC from six companies, including builder Doosan Engineering & Construction and web portal operator Naver, using his power to regulate the use of land and ease regulations.
Doosan E&C in 2015 was granted permission to turn a hospital on a 10,000-square-meter site into a commercial complex following a rezoning in Bundang-gu approved by Seongnam City. Doosan E&C gave a combined 5.5 billion won to Seongnam FC in donations and advertising spending, according to prosecutors.
Naver is accused of transferring some 4 billion won in contribution via a third-party nonprofit based in Seoul. The third party allegedly received the money from Naver and handed it to Seongnam FC, according to the prosecution.
In return, Naver was granted approval to transform a parking lot into a 37-story building including eight basement floors, which Naver uses as its second headquarters, now known as Naver 1784, it added.
Prosecution considers such money transfers as acts of bribery, given that Lee doubled as the chairman of the professional soccer team.
Lee, leading the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea since August, has denied the accusations. Lee has also argued that the money transfers have been settled legitimately.
Police had earlier disposed of the case in September 2021 due to a lack of evidence after a three-year probe. This was when Park Eun-jung, an outspoken critic of Yoon Suk Yeol, was leading the Seongnam prosecutors' office since mid-2021.
But following Lee's narrow defeat to former prosecutor and conservative party candidate Yoon in a March presidential election, prosecutors asked the police to open the closed case. After the reinvestigation, police sent the case to the prosecution in September 2022, seeking third-party bribery charges. Prosecutors summoned Lee as a suspect in late December.
This was the first time an opposition party leader has been summoned by prosecutors in South Korea's constitutional history, according to the Democratic Party.
Former presidents of Korea have a history of purging political opponents, as seen in the death penalty of activist and politician Cho Bong-am in 1959, as well as the death sentence handed down to Kim Dae-jung, who later became president.
"Had Lee been an ordinary individual, I wonder if prosecutors of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration would have gone this far," said Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-keun outside the Seongnam prosecutors' office.
Meanwhile, Lee is also being targeted by prosecutors in a widening probe into a separate scandal. The case centers around a lucrative land development project in 2015 to supply homes in Daejang-dong, Seongnam.
Prosecutors have been looking into Lee's involvement in approving the land developer consortium's dividend plan, as heard from a suspect during a court trial in October.
The plan had allowed an inexperienced asset management company, Hwacheon Daeyu, to take larger dividends from the real estate development than a public-sector company, although Hwacheon Daeyu held a smaller stake than the public-sector company in the consortium.
Also gaining attention is whether the political row would help the main opposition clinch a popularity rebound.
The popularity rating of the Democratic Party has been on a steady decline. In the first week of January, the rating was at 43.9 percent, down by nearly 5 percentage points compared with the third week of November, showed an estimate by Realmeter on Monday.