South Korea’s Park digs in, as ty­coons deny seek­ing fa­vors In­dus­try titans ha­rangued in scan­dal probe

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SEOUL:

South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Ge­unhye, en­gulfed in an in­flu­ence ped­dling scan­dal, said if she was im­peached she would wait for a court to up­hold the de­ci­sion, a party of­fi­cial said yes­ter­day, a sign a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis could drag on for months. Park’s embattled pres­i­dency faces a crit­i­cal junc­ture, with par­lia­ment ex­pected to hold an im­peach­ment vote on Fri­day. Even if the mo­tion is passed, it must be up­held by the Con­sti­tu­tional Court, a process that could take at least months.

Sep­a­rately, South Korea’s most prom­i­nent cor­po­rate chiefs told a par­lia­men­tary panel they had not sought fa­vors when they made con­tri­bu­tions to two foun­da­tions at the heart of the scan­dal, even as one of them ac­knowl­edged it was hard to say “no” to the gov­ern­ment. “It’s a South Korean re­al­ity that if there is a gov­ern­ment re­quest, it is dif­fi­cult for com­pa­nies to de­cline,” said Huh Chang-soo, who heads the en­ergy-to-re­tail GS Group and is also chair­man of the Fed­er­a­tion of Korean In­dus­tries, the main lobby group for the con­glom­er­ates known as chae­bol. Park, 64, is un­der in­tense pres­sure to re­sign im­me­di­ately, with big crowds tak­ing to the streets ev­ery Satur­day call­ing for her ouster. Her ap­proval rat­ing is at a record low of 4 per­cent.

She would be the first demo­crat­i­cally elected South Korean pres­i­dent not to serve a full five-year term. She is ac­cused of col­lud­ing with a friend and a for­mer aide to pres­sure big busi­ness own­ers to pay into two foun­da­tions set up to back pol­icy ini­tia­tives. She has de­nied wrong­do­ing but apol­o­gized for care­less­ness in her ties with the friend, Choi Soon­sil. Park met lead­ers of her Saenuri party and top of­fi­cial Chung Jin-suk later said the pres­i­dent was will­ing to ac­cept her party’s pro­posal that she step down in April - which has been re­jected by the op­po­si­tion - but gave no in­di­ca­tion that she was will­ing to quit im­me­di­ately.

“Un­less she says she is re­sign­ing im­me­di­ately, what­ever she says won’t sat­isfy the pub­lic and won’t make the op­po­si­tion drop their im­peach­ment mo­tion,” said Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Pol­i­tics and Lead­er­ship. Op­po­si­tion par­ties need at least 28 mem­bers from Park’s Saenuri Party for the im­peach­ment bill to pass with a two-thirds ma­jor­ity. At least 29 of them are be­lieved to be plan­ning to vote for the bill, mem­bers of a break­away fac­tion said. Last week, Park of­fered to step down and asked par­lia­ment to de­cide how and when she should re­sign, a move op­po­si­tion par­ties re­jected as a ploy to buy time and avoid im­peach­ment.

Rhee Jong-hoon, a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor at iGM Con­sult­ing, said Park would fight in the Con­sti­tu­tional Court to over­turn an im­peach­ment hear­ing. “And if the mo­tion is over­turned? She will re­main in of­fice un­til her term is fin­ished. Noth­ing mat­ters af­ter the Con­sti­tu­tional Court rules against the im­peach­ment bill.” The heads of con­glom­er­ates con­trol­ling rev­enue equiv­a­lent to more than half the coun­try’s econ­omy were ques­tioned over whether they were pres­sured by Park or Choi to give money to non-profit foun­da­tions, which backed ini­tia­tives put forth by Park, in ex­change for spe­cial treat­ment.

‘Heavy heart’

Sam­sung Group leader Jay Y Lee, who sat at the cen­tre of the wit­ness table, said Park had asked him dur­ing one-onone meet­ings for sup­port for boost­ing cul­tural and sports-re­lated de­vel­op­ments but did not specif­i­cally re­quest money. “There are of­ten re­quests from var­i­ous parts of so­ci­ety in­clud­ing for cul­ture and sports. We have never con­trib­uted seek­ing quid pro quo. This case was the same,” Lee said. The 48-year-old Lee, the third-gen­er­a­tion leader of the coun­try’s big­gest con­glom­er­ate who re­ceived the lion’s share of the panel’s of­ten-hec­tor­ing ques­tion­ing, said he was em­bar­rassed by the sit­u­a­tion and was ap­pear­ing with a “heavy heart”. Sam­sung do­nated 20.4 bil­lion won ($17.46 mil­lion) to the two foun­da­tions, the most of any group, and pros­e­cu­tors raided its of­fices last month.

The cor­po­rate titans ran a gaunt­let of me­dia and protesters as they en­tered the Na­tional Assem­bly for the first such par­lia­men­tary hear­ing fea­tur­ing such a large group of chae­bol bosses. The fam­ily-con­trolled chae­bol have long dom­i­nated Asia’s fourth-largest econ­omy, work­ing closely with the gov­ern­ment in a sys­tem that helped the coun­try re­build from the rav­ages of the 1950-53 Korean War. But the sys­tem, crit­ics say, is due for re­form, in­clud­ing im­proved cor­po­rate gov­er­nance and trans­parency. None of the chae­bol has been ac­cused of any wrong­do­ing in the case, but a pro­tester out­side the assem­bly held a sign say­ing: “Ar­rest the chae­bol chiefs”.—Reuters

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