South Korea President Park Geun Hye's approval rating dives as public fury grows

Ms Choi being taken to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office yesterday.
Ms Choi being taken to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

More talk emerges of how S. Korean President let friend, who faces more grilling, exert influence over govt bodies

The woman accused of abusing her friendship with and influencing South Korean President Park Geun Hye faced further grilling by prosecutors yesterday as polls showed Ms Park's approval rating plunging to an all-time low of 10.4 per cent.

Ms Choi Soon Sil, 60, is being investigated for influence peddling and misusing her 40-year-old friendship with Ms Park to meddle in state affairs for her own gain.

Ms Choi, who was questioned on Monday and then held that night at a detention centre, was escorted back to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office around 10am yesterday. She was handcuffed and wearing a prison uniform under her navy coat, as well as a surgical mask over her face.

The daughter of a religious cult figure faces at least 10 charges, including bribery, illegal access to presidential documents and misappropriating public funds. But she has denied all of them, according to officials.

The prosecutors have until midnight today to decide if they will seek a warrant to formally arrest Ms Choi. She is currently held under "emergency detention", allowed for up to 48 hours, to avoid having her run away or destroy evidence.

 

Meanwhile, Ms Park's popularity has nosedived as more speculation emerged of how she allowed Ms Choi to exert extensive influence over various government bodies, including placing Ms Choi's cronies in important positions.

A Monday survey of 1,088 people by pollster Research View showed that the President's approval rating has dropped to a new low of 10.4 per cent - down from 17.5 per cent last week. Her disapproval rating hit a record high of 81.2 per cent, up from 66.3 per cent a week ago.

Analysts have urged Ms Park to speak up and quell swelling rumours - there is even talk that she is part of a cult led by Ms Choi - arguing that her silence is making matters worse.

But the President did not give any comment yesterday.

Her spokesman Jung Youn Kuk appealed to the public to "keep calm for the sake of the nation" and wait until the truth is out. He also promised that the presidential office would cooperate with prosecutors on the investigation.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn, at a Cabinet meeting yesterday, urged civil servants to do their work "responsibly" so as to restore order to state affairs which have been disrupted by the scandal, dubbed "Choi Gate" and "Choi Tsunami" by the local media.

Public fury has snowballed since Ms Choi returned on Sunday from Germany, where she had been hiding since news of the scandal first broke in September.

One man drove an excavator into the front entrance of a different prosecutor's office yesterday morning, in a bid to "help Choi Soon Sil die for the sin she said deserves death". Ms Choi had apologised on Monday for what she said was "a sin deserving death". The man was arrested by the police.

Analysts said people are upset with how the privileged class abuse their wide connections for personal gain and, in this case, the act appears to have been condoned by the country's highest powers.

"This is a classic case of abuse of power that went unchecked," said sociology professor Andrew Eungi Kim from Korea University.

He added that public unhappiness with the government started with its inefficient handling of the 2014 ferry disaster that killed 295 people on board. "The pent-up anger is spilling over," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline 'Park's approval rating dives as public fury grows'. Print Edition | Subscribe