Calls for Park to quit grow but counter-protest forms

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul (left) and other regional capitals last night in the fourth straight weekend of protest against embattled President Park.
Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul (left) and other regional capitals last night in the fourth straight weekend of protest against embattled President Park.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

S. Korean President resists calls to step down as older conservatives show their support

SEOUL • Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul yesterday in the fourth straight weekend of protest against embattled President Park Geun Hye.

Ms Park is resisting calls to step down amid an ongoing political crisis in which she is alleged to have let an old friend meddle in state affairs.

The scandal has rocked Ms Park's presidency and united Koreans in disapproval, culminating in a protest last weekend that saw a million people march on Seoul by some estimates.

Yesterday's protest in the capital city was smaller as there were also demonstrations in regional capitals. Police said at least 155,000 people had packed into a central Seoul square early in the evening for a candle-lit rally. Organisers said the number was 500,000.

Ms Park has pledged to cooperate in an investigation into the scandal. Prosecutors are expected to bring indictments against Ms Choi Soon Sil, Ms Park's friend at the centre of the crisis, and two former presidential aides today.

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that Ms Choi, 60, leveraged on her relationship with Ms Park to coerce donations from large conglomerates like Samsung to non-profit foundations which she set up and used for personal gain.

She is also accused of interfering in government affairs, despite holding no official position.

But not all Koreans are calling for the President to resign. A short drive away from the main protest, a group of conservative demonstrators gathered outside Seoul station in defence of Ms Park.

"Sixteen million people elected this President to office. It does not make sense to simply ask for her withdrawal," said 78-year-old pensioner Geum Sang Chul, who is a member of the Korean Veterans Association.

Police estimated the number of counter-protesters at 11,000, while organisers said the turnout was higher.

Ms Park's approval ratings have been at a record-low 5 per cent for the past three weeks because of the scandal over her friend.

Many of her remaining supporters, some of whom refer to themselves as "the 5 per cent", are loyal to Ms Park's father, Mr Park Chung Hee, a military strongman who ruled South Korea for 18 years until he was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979.

Ms Park's popularity and election as president stemmed in part from the symbolic connection to her father, who is still revered by older generations.

"If they really care about the country, they should consider the country's image," said 66-year-old pensioner Lee Sang Soon. "I am troubled by how the country is portrayed abroad by these protests."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Calls for Park to quit grow but counter-protest forms'. Print Edition | Subscribe