Share story

SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean National Assembly on Wednesday voted to allow the arrest of an opposition lawmaker on charges of plotting treason in a case that rekindled fears of a pro-North Korean rebellion and concern about the actions of a powerful intelligence agency long accused of meddling in domestic politics under the pretext of hunting Communists.

The lawmaker, Lee Seok-Ki, a member of the minor United Progressive Party, is accused of gathering 130 followers, some of them drunk and with small children, in two secret meetings in May to plot an armed rebellion in support of North Korea in case of war.

North Korea heightened military tensions earlier this year by declaring it would no longer honor the cease-fire that halted the Korean War in 1953.

In one of the meetings, which lasted till 2 a.m. May 13 in Seoul, Lee, 51, said war could be imminent on the divided Korean Peninsula and his followers should prepare themselves for a “revolution” against “the world’s most powerful American imperialists” and achieve “a new reunified fatherland,” according to the National Intelligence Service’s charges against him.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

According to the charges, one of Lee’s followers reminded the others that during the Korean War, South Korean authorities arrested and executed tens of thousands of leftists out of fears they would collaborate with the North Korean army.

The man, Hong Soon-Seok, was quoted as saying that if there were another war, a similar fate could befall South Korean leftists, “as Jews were once rounded up.”

Another follower, Lee Sang-Ho, suggested attacking South Korea’s communications, oil, train and other crucial facilities in case of war, the charges said.

But Hong also called the idea of buying sniper rifles and using hacking skills to attack military radar facilities “outlandish.”

Lee Seok-Ki and his followers also face separate charges of violating South Korea’s anti-communist national security law when they sang North Korea’s “revolutionary” propaganda songs during four political gatherings last year.

Hong and Lee Sang-Ho were arrested last week.

“Lee Seok-Ki is an enemy of South Korea,” said Kim Jin-Tae, a lawmaker from the governing Saenuri Party, calling on fellow legislators to support a bill authorizing the arrest of Lee on Wednesday.

By law, a legislator can be arrested with parliamentary approval when the National Assembly is in session.

“This is a medieval witch hunt,” Lee told the Assembly, denying hatching a plot to overthrow the South Korean government.

In an earlier news conference, he called himself a pacifist and urged his fellow lawmakers to reject the bill.

Lee Jung-Hee, the head of Lee Seok-Ki’s party, said the intelligence agency cited excerpts and distorted the context of the comments made during the May meeting to support its treason charges. The talks of sabotaging state facilities were “like jokes and were laughed away,” she said.

But Lee Seok-Ki found few friends in the Assembly, and the bill was passed 258-14, as the main opposition Democratic Party also decided to approve it. Later Wednesday, intelligence agents took him to a court hearing, where a judge was to decide whether to formally arrest him.

Lee is the first lawmaker to face treason charges since democratically elected leaders replaced past military dictators. His case has rocked the country for days, setting off charges from the opposition that the spy agency is resorting to its old trick of concocting espionage cases and threats from North Korea to divert attention from domestic political crises and calls to curtail its power.

The case comes amid heightened concern over the actions of South Korea’s intelligence apparatus. Won Sei-Hoon, a former head of the spy agency, now stands trial on charges of ordering a team of agents to begin an online smear campaign last year against government critics.

Although many South Koreans criticized and ridiculed Lee, calling for his punishment, others raised questions about what constitutes a treason plot and how freely people can talk about North Korea in South Korea, where the government blocks access to North Korean websites and people are arrested for resending Twitter posts of North Korean propaganda materials.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.