Massive protest in Seoul as South Koreans call for President Park Geun Hye to step down

Police said more than 40,000 people attended the candlelight rally against President Park in Seoul last night - more than double the crowd at a similar anti-Park protest the week before.
Police said more than 40,000 people attended the candlelight rally against President Park in Seoul last night - more than double the crowd at a similar anti-Park protest the week before.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

S. Koreans show little sympathy for embattled leader caught in scandal focused on her friend

SEOUL • Tens of thousands of banner-waving protesters marched through the streets of Seoul yesterday, demanding the resignation of President Park Geun Hye, a day after she apologised and accepted full blame for a crippling graft scandal.

In one of the largest demonstrations seen in the South Korean capital in years, there was little sympathy for Ms Park who, in an emotional televised address to the nation on Friday, had talked of her loneliness and "heartache" at the explosion of public anger in recent weeks.

"Her speech made me even more angry," said Ms Park Mee Hee, 44, who was marching with her teenage daughter.

"She kept making ridiculous excuses as if she was totally innocent. She should step down right now."

The scandal has focused on the President's close personal friend Choi Soon Sil, who has been arrested for fraud and also stands accused of meddling in state affairs - including official appointments and policy decisions - despite holding no official position.

 

The crisis has shattered public trust in President Park's judgment and leadership, and her approval rating has plunged to just 5 per cent - a record low for a sitting president.

Police said more than 40,000 had turned out for last night's candlelight rally - more than double the crowd at a similar anti-Park protest the week before.

Organisers of the rally said the number was closer to 200,000, after a Seoul court overturned a police ban on the demonstrators marching along the city's main ceremonial boulevard.

Around 20,000 police officers were mobilised, but while the tone of the banners and slogans was angry, the event was largely peaceful, with many school and college students as well as couples carrying infants or walking with their young children. Punching their fists in the air, they chanted "Resign, Park Geun Hye" and "You are under siege".

Ms Choi, 60, was formally arrested last Thursday on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power, but public anger has largely focused on the allegations that she interfered in government affairs.

The South Korean media has portrayed Choi, whose late father was a shadowy religious leader and an important mentor to Ms Park, as a Rasputin-like figure who wielded an unhealthy influence over the President.

"I couldn't answer when my kid asked me who is the real president," a speaker, a mother with three children, told the rally.

"What is really irritating is the fact that Choi was acting like a regent for Park, controlling her decision-making," said 20-year-old political science student Kim Do Hyun.

In an effort to restore a semblance of trust in her administration, Ms Park has reshuffled ministers and senior advisers, bringing in figures from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.

In her televised address, the President said she was willing to be questioned by prosecutors investigating the charges against Choi. She also sought to portray herself as an over-trusting friend who had let her guard down at a moment of weakness.

The main opposition party has threatened to agitate for her ouster unless she devolves more of her extensive executive powers, but it is wary of forcing an early presidential election it would not be confident of winning.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Massive protest in Seoul calling for Park to step down'. Print Edition | Subscribe