South Korean President Park Geun Hye to address nation on Nov 4 over Choi-gate scandal

Choi Soon Sil (left) being escorted after her formal arrest, at the Central District Court in Seoul, on Nov 3, 2016.
Choi Soon Sil (left) being escorted after her formal arrest, at the Central District Court in Seoul, on Nov 3, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye is set to address the nation on Friday (Nov 4) over a snowballing political scandal that saw her close friend arrested for corruption and sparked calls for her resignation.

Ms Park will deliver the public address - her second since the scandal broke last month - on Friday morning, her spokesman said.

The announcement came shortly after a Seoul court formally approved an arrest warrant for Choi Soon Sil, Ms Park's close friend facing charges of fraud and abuse of power.

Ms Choi, who has been held in emergency detention since Monday (Oct 31), is accused of coercing local firms to donate large sums to dubious non-profit foundations that she then used for personal gain.

Prosecutors had deemed her a flight risk and "unstable".

Ms Choi, daughter of a late religious figure who was a long-time mentor for Ms Park, also faces allegations that she meddled with state affairs, including nomination of senior officials.

The shock scandal sparked nationwide protests urging Ms Park's resignation, with prosecutors mulling launching a formal probe. If realised it would be the country's first investigation of an incumbent president.

Under South Korea's Constitution, the incumbent president may not be charged with a criminal offence except insurrection or treason.

But many argue the sitting president can be probed by prosecutors and then charged after leaving office.

Justice Minister Kim Hyun Woong also told Parliament on Thursday that prosecutors could question Ms Park, if the ongoing investigation required it.

The ongoing probe also targets firms - including Samsung and SK - that offered donations to foundations favoured by Ms Choi, and a Samsung executive was questioned by prosecutors on Thursday, Yonhap added.

Samsung - by far the South's largest business conglomerate - faces allegations that it separately offered millions of euros to Ms Choi to bankroll her daughter's equestrian training in Germany.

The scandal has shaken the presidency, exposing Ms Park to public outrage and ridicule and, with just over a year left in office, seen her approval ratings plunge into single digits.

In an effort to deflect rising public criticism, Ms Park had been urged to create a neutral Cabinet by bringing in members from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.

She has reached across the traditional political divide with a host of new appointments, including tapping the liberal Kim Byong Joon as her new prime minister, a largely symbolic post.

She announced on Thursday her pick for chief of staff, Mr Han Gwang-Ok, a former aide to late President Kim Dae Jung in an appointment the presidential Blue House said would help get the rattled administration back on track.

But the opposition has dismissed the reshuffle as a smokescreen.

They have called for a full investigation of Ms Park's relationship with Ms Choi, vowing to block the new prime minister's nomination by wielding their combined parliamentary majority.

 

The media has portrayed the 60-year-old Ms Choi as a Rasputin-like figure, who wielded an unhealthy influence over Ms Park that continued after her presidential election victory in December 2012.

Ms Choi is the daughter of late religious leader Choi Tae Min, who was married six times, had multiple pseudonyms and set up his own cult-like group known as the Church of Eternal Life.

He befriended a traumatised Ms Park after the 1974 assassination of her mother - who he said had appeared to him in a dream. Ms Park treated him as a mentor and subsequently formed a close bond with his daughter.

Ms Choi flew back to Seoul from Germany on Sunday (Oct 30) to submit to herself for questioning, saying after she fought her way through a scrum of press and protesters that she had "committed a deadly sin", Yonhap reported.

The scandal comes as South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, faces slumping exports and high unemployment amid rising nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.