SEOUL • South Korean prosecutors said yesterday that they believed President Park Geun Hye was an accomplice in a corruption scandal that has rocked her administration, in a heavy blow to her fight for political survival.
The prosecutors' comments, which came as they indicted a close friend of Ms Park and two of her former aides, are likely to spur stronger calls for her to step down or be impeached.
Ms Park's close friend, Choi Soon Sil, and former presidential aide An Chong Bum were charged with abuse of power by pressuring companies to contribute funds to foundations at the centre of the scandal, said Mr Lee Young Ryeol, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.
"The special investigation team concluded that, based on the evidence secured to date, the President was in complicity with Choi Soon Sil, An Chong Bum and Jeong Ho Seong to a considerable degree," Mr Lee told a news conference.
Jeong, also one of Park's former aides, was indicted for leaking classified information to Choi.
Ms Park's lawyer, Mr Yoo Yeong Ha, rejected the asssertion that she was involved, calling it an "imagination" and saying prosecutors "have built a house of fantasy".
MORE REASON FOR IMPEACHMENT
It provided a legal basis for impeachment proceedings, not only her moral and political liabilities.
PROFESSOR KIM JUN SEOK, a political science professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, on the prosecutors' comments about Ms Park's role raisingthe prospect that she would face impeachment.
Presidential Blue House spokesman Jung Youn Kuk said the prosecutors' announcement was "deeply regrettable".
Ms Park cannot be indicted because she has constitutional immunity, Mr Lee said. But he added that "we will continue to investigate the President", without elaborating.
Under the Constitution, a sitting president cannot be indicted unless on charges of treason, but the conclusion by the prosecutors that Ms Park was involved in the case prompted fresh calls from opposition parties for her to step down.
The main opposition Democratic Party and smaller opposition People's Party said Ms Park will face impeachment proceedings if she refuses to resign. But they stopped short of saying they would immediately initiate such a move.
Analysts said the prosecutors' comments about Ms Park's role increased the prospect that she would face impeachment.
"It provided a legal basis for impeachment proceedings, not only her moral and political liabilities," said Professor Kim Jun Seok, a political science professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
President Park is unlikely to step down voluntarily because she would lose immunity against prosecution, Prof Kim said. Her five-year term ends in February 2018.
"Then, the only option that is left for politicians, given the worsening public sentiment, is impeachment," he said.
Ms Park has resisted calls to resign over the scandal but has publicly apologised twice, saying that it was caused by her shortcomings and that she had sought help from the business community in the belief it would benefit the economy, not for personal gain.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday in the fourth straight weekend of protests against Ms Park, in the biggest public demonstrations the country has seen since the 1980s.
She has pledged to cooperate in the investigation but pushed back on the prosecutors' plan to question her last week.
South Korea's Parliament has approved a Bill to appoint a special prosecutor, who will take over from state prosecutors and conduct a separate and a more wide-reaching probe. The special prosecutor is expected to begin work next month.