South Korea’s Park Geun-hye identified as accomplice in corruption

Embattled president has immunity but impeachment calls grow

 Protesters wearing cut-outs of South Korean president park Geun-hye (R) and Choi Soon-sil attend a protest denouncing Park over a recent influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul, South Korea last month. Photograph: Reuters

Protesters wearing cut-outs of South Korean president park Geun-hye (R) and Choi Soon-sil attend a protest denouncing Park over a recent influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul, South Korea last month. Photograph: Reuters

 

South Korea’s political crisis is deepening after prosecutors accused President Park Geun-hye of collusion in a corruption and influence-peddling case involving a close confidante dubbed her “shaman adviser”.

Although she cannot be charged because of presidential immunity except in cases of insurrection or treason, opposition rivals are calling for her impeachment and nearly one million Koreans rallied in Seoul calling for her to step down for a fourth successive weekend.

A special investigation team appointed by public prosecutors said that Ms Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil was indicted on charges of abuse of power, coercion, attempted coercion and attempted fraud, while two senior former aides An Chong-bum and Chung Ho-sung were also formally charged.

“We have booked the president as a suspect, believing that she had been an accomplice with (Choi and her aides),” Lee Young-ryeol, chief of the Seoul central district prosecutor’s office, said in a televised news conference.

Prosecutors had not been allowed to question the president face-to-face despite repeated requests, he said.

“We still decided to press charges against the three suspects, who are in pre-trial detention, based on the vast evidence we have investigated so far, including testimonies, a work memo book and records of conservations from mobile phones,” said Mr Lee.

Ms Choi was Ms Park’s spiritual adviser for many years. She succeeded her father Choi Tae-min as head of the shadowy Church of Eternal Life. Her father was seen as playing a Rasputin-like role in the life of the young Park Geun-hye in the 1970s, claiming he could talk to her dead mother Yook Young-soo, who was assassinated in 1974. Ms Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, was killed in 1979.

Ms Choi was arrested in November, accused of using her relationship with Park to acquire 77.4 billion won (€62 million) in donations for her foundations by putting pressure on some of South Korea’s biggest “chaebols” or industrial conglomerates, including carmaker Hyundai, retail giant Lotte, steelmaker Posco and telecom giant KT.

Shortly before her arrest Ms Choi apologised and said she had committed a “deadly sin”.

The presidential Blue House has strenuously denied the allegations, describing them as a “house of cards”.

“The results announced by the prosecutors’ office are not true at all and are based on speculation and imagination,” Park’s spokesman Jung Youn-kuk told a briefing on Sunday.

Her lawyer Yoo Yeong-ha has rejected calls for her to undergo questioning, telling the Yonhap news agency he will prepare for the interrogation so it can take place sometime this week.

Park’s approval rating remained at an all-time low of five per cent last week, according to local pollster Gallup Korea.

The Korea Joongang Daily said the prosecution’s decision to label Park a co-conspirator offered legal grounds for lawmakers to move ahead with a presidential impeachment motion.

Moon Jae-in, who is seen as a popular contender for the presidency and former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said at a meeting of eight opposition presidential candidates that the case for impeachment was strong.

“If the president declared that she would resign, we would help her leave the office with dignity,” he said.