President now a suspect in corruption scandal, say prosecutors
SOUTH Korean prosecutors said yesterday that President Park Geun-hye had colluded with her close confidante in a corruption and influencepeddling scandal that has sparked massive nationwide protests and calls for her impeachment.
Ms Park’s longtime friend Choi Soon-sil was charged yesterday with coercion and abuse of power, as was one of the president’s former aides.
Another presidential aide was charged with leaking confidential state documents.
“The president played a collusive role in a considerable portion of the criminal activities involving the [three] people,” said Lee Young-ryeol, a Seoul prosecutor who is leading a probe into the scandal.
Ms Choi, 60, has been accused of using her personal ties to Ms Park to meddle in state affairs and of coercing local firms to “donate” more than US$60 million to dubious non-profit foundations. She allegedly then used some of the funds for personal gain.
Ms Park faces allegations that she helped Ms Choi extract money from the firms and that she ordered her aides to leak state documents to M Choi, who has no official title or security clearance.
Under the constitution the incumbent president cannot be charged with a criminal offence except insurrection or treason. But she can still be probed by prosecutors and possibly charged after leaving office.
Mr Lee acknowledged that prosecutors could not formally charge Ms Park at present but vowed to continue to investigate her.
Prosecutors had previously described the conservative leader as a witness to Ms Choi’s crimes but have changed her status to that of a criminal suspect, said a senior prosecutor at the investigative team.
“From now on, she will be probed as a suspect ... for violation of Section 30 of the criminal code on collusion,” Roh Seung-Kwon said.
The latest revelations piled pressure on opposition party lawmakers to seek the impeachment of Ms Park, the daughter of a former president, who has about a year left in her fiveyear term.
Presidents serve only a single term in South Korea.
The main opposition Democratic Party has not seriously pushed for Ms Park’s impeachment due to fears of a backlash from conservative voters before the presidential election in 2017.
But recent opinion polls suggest growing support for Ms Park’s impeachment, with the latest survey showing 74 percent backing.
Ms Park has promised to answer prosecutors’ questions – a move which would make her the first South Korean president to be quizzed by prosecutors while in office.
More than 50 local firms including Samsung and Hyundai were forced to donate a total of 77.4 billion won ($65.5 million) to the two foundations controlled by Ms Choi.
Many made the donations due to fear of political reprisals, such as harsh tax audits or difficulties getting regulatory approvals for their businesses, prosecutor Mr Lee said.
Ms Choi also pressured major firms including the South’s largest carmaker Hyundai and top steelmaker Posco to award lucrative contracts to firms linked to her, he added.
One of the aides leaked 180 confidential documents to Ms Choi including papers on foreign policy and the nomination of top officials and cabinet members.
The scandal has sent Ms Park’s approval ratings plunging to 5pc – the lowest of any sitting president. –
Koreans stage another demonstration calling for the resigntion of President Park Geun-hye in Seoul on November 19.