South Korean prosecutors summon ousted leader Park Geun Hye, vote set for May 9

The National Election Commission convening a meeting at the commission's headquarters in Gwacheon, Seoul, on Wednesday (March 15) to discuss preparations and measures for the early presidential election.
The National Election Commission convening a meeting at the commission's headquarters in Gwacheon, Seoul, on Wednesday (March 15) to discuss preparations and measures for the early presidential election. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (REUTERS) – South Korean prosecutors summoned ousted leader Park Geun Hye on Wednesday (March 15) for questioning next week as they conduct a widening investigation into an influence-peddling scandal that ended her presidency.

The government also announced a presidential election to find a replacement for Park, South Korea’s first democratically elected president to be removed from office, would be held on May 9.

The Constitutional Court dismissed Park from office on Friday when it upheld a parliamentary impeachment vote over an influence-peddling scandal that has shaken South Korea’s political and business elite.

Park has denied any wrongdoing.

The Samsung Group, South Korea’s largest conglomerate, is already embroiled in the scandal and the Yonhap news agency said prosecutors had started investigating two other conglomerates – the Lotte Group and SK Group.

Samsung denies any wrongdoing. A spokesman for the SK Group said it would cooperate with the investigation, while the Lotte Group could not be reached immediately for comment.

Park had been summoned to appear for questioning at 9.30am (8.30am Singapore) on Tuesday, the prosecutors’ office said in a message to media.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn, who has been acting president since December, when parliament voted to impeach Park, said he would not run in the election. 

Minister of the Interior Hong Yun Sik promised the vote would be the most clean and transparent ever. “This election is unprecedented in our history,” he told a briefing, referring to the short campaign period.

Mr Hwang had emerged in opinion polls as a top conservative candidate even though he had not declared an intention to run.

The scandal has undermined support for the ruling conservatives, and Mr Hwang’s decision would appear to bolster the chances of a prominent liberal, Moon Jae In, who is leading in opinion polls.

The turmoil comes at a time of rising tension with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes, and with China over the deployment of a US  anti-missile system in South Korea that China sees as a threat to its security.

US  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit South Korea, as well as Japan and China, this week.

Park left the Blue House presidential compound on Sunday to return to her private home in the capital as an ordinary citizen, stripped of her presidential immunity that had shielded her from prosecution.

One of Park’s lawyers said she would cooperate with prosecutors, who have not said how long they think their investigation would last.

Park said through a spokesman on Sunday she felt sorry about not being able to complete her term but, striking a defiant tone about the prospect of an investigation, said the truth would come out.

A special prosecution team had accused Park of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon Sil, to pressure big businesses into contributing to foundations set up to support her policies and allowing Choi to influence state affairs.

Choi also denied wrongdoing.

Lee Jae Yong, head of Samsung Group, is on trial on bribery, embezzlement and other charges in connection with the scandal. Lee denies all charges.

The prospect of an opposition victory has raised questions about the future in South Korea of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system, which China opposes because it says its radar can penetrate its territory.

Mr Tillerson will meet Mr Hwang and Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se in Seoul on Friday. He is not scheduled to see opposition figures, a US State Department official said, raising questions about the durability of any agreements.

The aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson is in South Korean waters this week for exercises with South Korean forces.

North Korea said the exercises were part of a “reckless scheme” to attack it and it warned the United States of “merciless” strikes if the carrier infringed on its sovereignty or dignity.