|Justice Lee Jung-mi goes to work at Constitutional Court in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap News)|
The case will be reviewed by the full bench of nine judges within the 180-day period. The head judge will convene the meetings and oversee the public pleas.
Observers said the review would take a long time as the unprecedented case entails a review of vast amounts of material.
A quicker decision, however, could come regarding the government’s request to slap a provisional injunction against all activities of the UPP. The Justice Ministry demanded that the UPP be banned from collecting 680 million won in state subsidies allocated to a parliamentary party.
Upon the designation of the chief judge, the court sent a copy of the Justice Ministry’s petition to the UPP and informed the National Assembly and the National Election Commission of the application. The UPP can submit its statement through a legal representative.
Lee Jung-mi joined the Constitutional Court in 2011 as the second woman to sit on the nine-member bench. Lee is considered relatively progressive in the largely conservative bench. Born in Ulsan in 1962, Lee studied law at Korea University and began her career as a judge at the Daejeon District Court in 1987.
Meanwhile, debate brewed over the legal basis for the government’s petition, signed off by President Park Geun-hye during her ongoing European trip.
The ministry cited Article 8, Clause 4 of the Constitution, which states, “If the purposes or activities of a political party are contrary to the fundamental democratic order, the government may bring action against it in the Constitutional Court for its dissolution, and the political party shall be dissolved in accordance with the decision of the Constitutional Court.”
The clause, established in 1960, has never been applied in its 53-year history.
The government’s move came months after the arrest of UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki and other members in August on charges of treason.
The point of debate is whether the so-called “Revolutionary Organization,” the purported core group within the UPP, can be considered part of or the same as the UPP and whether all members of the party can be considered involved. The RO is alleged to be an anti-government organization in league with the North Korean regime formed by Lee Seok-ki in laying out the revolt plot.
The on-going investigation by the National Intelligence Service and the prosecution and the first ruling on Lee is anticipated to play a critical role in the Constitutional Court’s decision.
The opposition argues that the clause in question was enacted for the sake of protecting a political party by specifying the only means of its disbandment, citing the Constitutional Court’s past research such as one study authored by the Korean Public Law Association in 2004 that concluded as such. They also claim that the government’s move lacks legal grounds as the prosecution’s investigation into the UPP members is still on-going.
The proponents, on the other hand, claim that the government’s motion can be considered a “preventive democratic measure” against any attempt that endangers its existence. They cite the fact that ordinary UPP members showed apparent support of, or no resistance to, Lee’s alleged pro-North activities, which could serve as one of the grounds for the government’s move.
Observers said the sufficiency of the evidence the prosecution manages to present to the Constitutional Court remains to be seen.
The UPP, meanwhile, stepped up their protest against what they called a “vulgar revenge” by President Park and denied any link to North Korea.
UPP lawmakers on Wednesday held a protest rally by having their heads shaved and entered an indefinite fast. The party also sought ways to build up their protest in conjunction with progressive civic groups.
“We must align with all forces and the people that resist the anti-democracy of the Park Geun-hye administration. We will risk our lives to fight,” said Rep. Kim Jae-yeon, spokeswoman of the UPP.
The main opposition Democratic Party, for its part, was seen to be struggling to find its own space in the middle of the ruling camp and the leftist party.
As the possibility is high that the Constitutional Court’s decision to come close to next year’s local election in June, the party was seen to be torn between emphasizing “democracy” versus being perceived as taking sides with the “pro-North.”
The party’s leadership has taken a neutral approach.
“The UPP must take this opportunity to clarify its purpose and activities. There are also concerns that (the case) may infringe upon the universal value of freedom of thought,” said DP chairman Kim Han-gil.
DP floor leader Jun Byung-hun echoed the position by clarifying the party “denounces pro-North forces” but that they also “will not tolerate forces that will politicize the fight against pro-North.”
By Lee Joo-hee (email@example.com)