South Korea’s ex-president Park on trial amid nuclear tensions

Ousted former leader denies corruption charges, which carry up to life in prison

Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye at her trial at the Seoul central district court on Tuesday. Photograph: Ahn Young-Joon/AFP/Getty Images

Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye at her trial at the Seoul central district court on Tuesday. Photograph: Ahn Young-Joon/AFP/Getty Images

 

South Korea’s Park Geun-hye has denied allegations of corruption and abuse of her office to pressurise the country’s mighty industrial conglomerates as the impeached ex-president’s trial began in Seoul.

Ms Park was ousted by the constitutional court and formally charged last month with bribery, abuse of power, coercion and leaks of government secrets to her friend and spiritual adviser Choi Soon-sil, who was also in the dock.

The trial takes place at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s escalating nuclear programme, which has seen a succession of missile tests in recent days. On Tuesday, South Korean troops fired warning shots at an “unidentified object” – possibly a drone – flying across the heavily fortified Military Demarcation Line (MDL) border from North Korea.

Ms Park was ousted after millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest against her presidency and the trial takes place two weeks after the election by a large majority of the liberal Moon Jae-in.

The ex-president is charged with taking or soliciting bribes worth 59.2 billion won (€50 million) from some of South Korea’s most powerful conglomerates, or “chaebol”, including taking bribes from the Samsung Group scion Jay Y Lee. If she is found guilty, she faces a sentence between 10 years in prison and life.

In her first public appearance since she was placed in custody on March 31st, TV news showed a solemn looking Ms Park being escorted by prison officers into the Seoul central district court in a navy suit.

She sat near Ms Choi during the trial but did not acknowledge her friend, Yonhap news agency reported.

Ferry disaster

While the corruption charges have angered many in South Korea, the real issue for most was Ms Park’s erratic behaviour during the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, when more than 300 people, mostly students, were killed and she apparently went missing for seven hours.

She is also accused of running a blacklist of artists, writers and film directors who were critical of the government, as well as putting pressure on companies to donate billions of won to two foundations allegedly controlled by Ms Choi.

Ms Park is the first woman to reach the highest office in South Korea. She is the eldest daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee and she had a traumatic upbringing – her mother Yook Young-soo was assassinated in 1974, while her father was slain in 1979.

Three judges preside over the trial, led by Judge Kim Se-yun, who is also in charge of Ms Choi’s trial.

“The accused Park Geun-Hye, in collusion with her friend Choi Soon-Sil . . . abused power and pressured business companies to provide bribes, thus taking private gains,” senior prosecutor Lee Won-Seok told the court.

Her lawyer Yoo Yeong-ha said the charges against Ms Park were based on “inference and imagination, not strict evidence”.

Ms Park said: “My stance is the same as my attorneys.”

She becomes the country’s third former president to stand trial over corruption allegations after Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were tried and convicted in 1996-97.

A ruling is expected from the court before the period of Ms Park’s detention expires six months after the indictment, which was on April 17th.