South Korea’s spy agency on Wednesday detained a leftist lawmaker accused of plotting an armed revolt in support of North Korea after parliament voted to approve his arrest.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) took United Progressive Party (UPP) legislator Lee Seok-ki away from his office in parliament after a confrontation with his supporters.
Scuffles erupted as UPP members blocked dozens of NIS agents at the office door.
Police eventually stepped in to end the noisy stand-off that lasted for nearly one hour. Television showed Lee surrendering and walking out.
Some exhausted UPP members fell to the ground or screamed as the NIS agents escorted Lee out.
“I came here of my own will to avoid clashes,” Lee told reporters after he was taken to a court at Suwon just south of Seoul.
He will be held at the court, which had issued a warrant for his detention, pending his formal arrest by state prosecutors.
Rival political parties earlier joined forces to approve Lee’s arrest on sedition charges. Without such a vote, lawmakers cannot be detained while the legislature is in session.
Some 258 legislators voted for the arrest while 14 objected.
Hundreds of police, including riot officers carrying shields, had stood guard outside the National Assembly as the vote was under way, with riot vans blocking roads and a water cannon atop an armoured vehicle.
About 200 UPP members had staged a sit-down protest outside the assembly building, chanting slogans accusing the spy agency of fabricating the charges.
Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told lawmakers that in May Lee – believing war with the North to be imminent – told his secretive leftist group to prepare for attacks on South Korea’s communication lines and railways.
Lee replied that he was the victim of a “savage and irrational witch hunt” led by the country’s secret police and fanned by the conservative news media.
“They may jail me for a while but steps towards independence, peace and democracy will never falter,” Lee told parliament.
The ruling conservative government had sought to arrest Lee, and the left-leaning main opposition Democratic Party supported the move.
“We’ll never tolerate anyone who is willing to fight on the side of the enemy in the event of a war,” said Democratic Party chief Kim Han-gil.
The spy agency last week raided the UPP’s offices and arrested three of Lee’s supporters on charges of seeking to instigate an armed insurrection in support of North Korea.
Lee had described those charges as “sheer fabrication” and an attempt by the agency to “block progressive and democratic forces”.
Sedition charges have been extremely rare since South Korea introduced democracy in the late 1980s.
The UPP in a statement accused the presidential Blue House and the spy agency of trying to divert attention from an election-rigging scandal that has spawned large candlelight street protests in Seoul in recent weeks.
The scandal has seen the arrest of former National Intelligence Service head Won Sei-hoon for allegedly ordering agents to run an online smear campaign against Democratic Party presidential candidate Moon Jae-in.
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 the same year.
South Korea has remained technically at war with the North since their 1950-53 war ended with an armistice but no peace treaty.