S. Korean lawmakers may vote on impeaching Park soon

Opposition pushing for vote as early as next week, as more ruling party MPs back move

SEOUL • A vote to impeach South Korea's scandal-hit President could take place as early as next week, lawmakers said.

A growing number of ruling party politicians have endorsed the opposition-led campaign to oust President Park Geun Hye over the scandal involving her friend Choi Soon Sil, who is accused of leveraging on their mysterious ties to milk companies for cash and peddle influence.

"We will seek to vote on the impeachment motion as early as Dec 2, and no later than Dec 9," Mr Woo Sang Ho, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, was quoted as saying yesterday by Yonhap news agency.

A senior ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker also said the impeachment move would be put to a parliamentary vote by Dec 9.

Opposition parties had been hesitant in pushing through an impeachment motion that requires two-thirds support, although they enjoy a combined working majority in the 300-seat Parliament.

But the move gathered steam when former head of the ruling party Kim Moo Sung jumped into the fray on Wednesday, declaring Ms Park must be impeached for breaching the Constitution.

More than 30 Saenuri lawmakers support Ms Park's impeachment, with 29 needed to cross party lines for the motion to be passed.

If the vote is successful, it would be the first time in 12 years that South Korea's Parliament has impeached a president.

Ms Park has issued public apologies and promised to submit herself to an expanding probe by state prosecutors, as well as a separate investigation by an independent special prosecutor to be appointed by Parliament.

Prosecutors said on Sunday that Ms Park had colluded with Ms Choi, branding the President a "co-culprit". They said Ms Park would be probed as a suspect, pushing to interrogate her directly - a move which would make her the first sitting South Korean president to be quizzed by prosecutors.

Ms Park's lawyer has dismissed the probe's findings as a "house of cards" built on "imagination and guesswork", declaring the President would not submit herself to the "politically biased" prosecutors' questioning.

Even if the impeachment vote gets two-thirds support in Parliament, there is no guarantee the country's conservative Constitutional Court will approve it, even as the snowballing scandal continues to hit South Korean household names.

Prosecutors yesterday raided the Finance Ministry and the headquarters of two of the country's most powerful companies.

SK and Lotte have been accused of making huge donations to foundations linked with Ms Choi in return for lucrative state licences for duty-free businesses.

SK, which runs the country's top wireless operator, donated 11.1 billion won (S$13 million), and Lotte, a retail and food giant, gave 4.9 billion won to the foundations.

The raid came a day after prosecutors searched the headquarters of Samsung Group over allegations that it had bribed Ms Choi to win state approval for a controversial merger last year.

The merger of two Samsung units was seen as crucial to ensure a smooth generational power transfer within the company's founding family but was criticised by many for causing financial damage to shareholders. The deal went through after Seoul's state pension fund - a major Samsung shareholder and also the target of a raid on Wednesday - approved it.

Several heads of the country's top firms, including Samsung and Hyundai, have been interviewed by prosecutors, shedding light on the unhealthy ties between the government and conglomerates that have endured for decades.

Public anger towards Ms Park escalated earlier this month at one of the largest - and loudest - anti-government protests the country had ever witnessed.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'S. Korean lawmakers may vote on impeaching Park soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe