Prosecutors cannot question President Park Geun Hye yet over influence-peddling scandal

Above: A painting of Ms Park is pasted on the ground in front of tents put up by protesters calling for her resignation in central Seoul yesterday.
Above: A painting of Ms Park is pasted on the ground in front of tents put up by protesters calling for her resignation in central Seoul yesterday. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Her lawyer, who was hired on Monday, says he needs more time to prepare defence

South Korean President Park Geun Hye's lawyer has rejected the prosecution's request to question her by today, arguing that he needs more time to prepare and review allegations that she abused her authority in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal that has rocked the country.

This is even as opposition leader Moon Jae In, the front runner in the next presidential election, pledged yesterday to run a national campaign to force Ms Park to quit.

"Park is defying the will of the people," said Mr Moon, referring to the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets last Saturday demanding that the President step down.

Pressure has been mounting on Ms Park to end her five-year term prematurely - she has about 15 months to go - as a snowballing scandal involving her close friend, Ms Choi Soon Sil, threatens to derail her presidency.

Ms Choi has already been arrested for fraud and meddling in state affairs for her own gain. She was also allegedly given illegal access to confidential documents from the presidential Blue House.

Prosecutors are now investigating whether Ms Park had abused her power to exert pressure on conglomerate heads to make big donations to two non-profit foundations set up by Ms Choi. The funds were then allegedly diverted for Ms Choi's own use, and for Ms Park's retirement.

Prosecutors had wanted to question Ms Park by today, 12 days after she publicly agreed to cooperate with investigations.


Above: Mr Yoo, who was Ms Park's legal adviser six years ago, says he prefers a written enquiry for his client but will arrange a face-to-face questioning "if it is inevitable". PHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

But her lawyer, Mr Yoo Yeong Ha, who was appointed only on Monday, said yesterday he needed more time to prepare for her defence. He also said he prefers a written inquiry, but face-to-face questioning can be arranged "if it is inevitable".

Mr Yoo, who served as Ms Park's legal adviser six years ago, urged that the unprecedented probe should not affect state affairs or interfere with her official duties.

Legal experts say while Ms Park enjoys presidential immunity, except in cases of insurrection or treason, she can still be charged after leaving office if investigations reveal any criminal wrongdoing.

Ms Park allegedly met conglomerate bosses individually to press them to donate to the two foundations Mir and K-Sport, both backed by the Ministry of Culture.

The prosecution has called those bosses in for questioning, including Hyundai Motor Group chairman Chung Mong Koo and Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang Ho last week, and Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong Bin yesterday.

Ms Park is also suspected of breaking the law regarding the handling of presidential records or official secrets by allegedly giving Ms Choi illegal access to classified documents.

Legal experts said Ms Park will be treated as a witness in the case, but there is a possibility she could become a suspect.

  • Options for the South Korean leader

  • SEOUL • South Korean President Park Geun Hye faces mounting calls for her to step down over a political scandal amid indications that Parliament, including members of her own ruling party, may try to impeach her.

    Below are the options facing Ms Park, whose term is due to end in February 2018.

    RESIGNATION
    If President Park resigns, an election would be held within 60 days, with the winner serving five years as Ms Park's successor, making for a high-stakes race for an unexpectedly early presidential vote.

    The incumbent Prime Minister would take over until a new president is picked, according to the Constitution.

    IMPEACHMENT
    To initiate an impeachment, a motion backed by a simple majority of the 300-member Parliament is needed. A two-thirds majority vote is needed to approve the motion. If passed, the Bill would then go to the Constitutional Court for review, where at least six of the nine judges have to approve it.

    The President's powers would be suspended until the Constitutional Court ruling, which can take up to six months.

    If the impeachment motion is confirmed by the court, a new election would be held within 60 days. If an impeachment case is dismissed, Ms Park would be reinstated immediately.

    SERVE OUT TERM AFTER RELINQUISHING ALL POWER
    Ms Park may agree with political parties to relinquish all powers in return for remaining in office until the end of her term, while a new prime minister and Cabinet appointed by the Parliament handle state affairs.

    There is no precedent for this scenario and political analysts believe Ms Park is unlikely to accept this proposal.

    IGNORE CALLS TO STEP DOWN
    Ms Park may declare she will continue serving as President, including representing the country in summit diplomacy. This would likely reignite massive protest rallies. The sitting president cannot be criminally indicted under the Constitution unless for treason - so she cannot be jailed for her role in the scandal while in office.

    REUTERS

Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said it is unclear if Ms Park engaged in any criminal activity in the case.

"President Park made a big mistake, a political blunder. People have lost confidence in her. What is not clear yet is if she actually knew about the whole thing and orchestrated the arm-twisting (of conglomerate bosses). If that is the case, then it's a bribery or extortion case, and she can be criminally implicated."

Meanwhile, the ruling and opposition parties have reached a consensus to set up an independent team comprising 40 members to conduct a no-holds-barred investigation into the case. They agreed yesterday to pass a Bill in Parliament tomorrow to establish the team by mid-December.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Prosecutors cannot question President Park yet'. Print Edition | Subscribe