South Korean president's friend at heart of scandal summoned for questioning

Choi Soon Sil (centre), the close friend and confidante of South Korean President Park Geun Hye, has been summoned for questioning on Saturday (Dec 24) on charges including bribery and embezzlement.
Choi Soon Sil (centre), the close friend and confidante of South Korean President Park Geun Hye, has been summoned for questioning on Saturday (Dec 24) on charges including bribery and embezzlement.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A South Korean special prosecutor probing a corruption scandal engulfing impeached President Park Geun Hye summoned a friend of hers at the centre of the crisis for questioning on Saturday (Dec 24) on charges including bribery and embezzlement, an official said.

The questioning of Choi Soon Sil, whom Park has described as a life-long friend, came ahead of a ninth straight weekend rally in central Seoul demanding the immediate ouster of Park.

Choi and other former presidential aides were charged in November with abuse of power and fraud, but Park has immunity from prosecution as long as she is in office even though her powers are suspended.

"The charges in the indictment are but a very small part of the 14 points under investigation by the special prosecutor,"said Lee Kyu Chul, a spokesman for the team of investigators probing the scandal.

Choi, wearing a grey prison uniform and a surgical mask, was taken to the special prosecutor's office from detention, pushed by a throng of correctional officers through a media scrum.

She did not answer journalists' questions about the charges.

The special prosecutor has up to 100 days to investigate allegations that Park colluded with Choi and her aides to pressure big conglomerates to contribute 77 billion won (S$92.8 million) to foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.

Park has denied wrongdoing but apologised for carelessness in her ties with Choi.

The friendship dates back to the 1970s when Park served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by an assassin's bullet intended for her father, then-president Park Chung Hee.

Five years later, in 1979, Park's father was murdered by his disgruntled spy chief.

Park's impeachment is being reviewed by the Constitutional Court which has up to 180 days from the day of the Dec 9 impeachment to decide whether to uphold it or reinstate Park.

Another large crowd is expected in central Seoul later in the day calling on Park to step down. A group of 1,000 young people are scheduled to dress up as Santa Claus and march to the presidential Blue House to deliver handcuffs.