South Korean prosecutors question former vice-sports minister in 'Choi-gate' graft scandal

Former vice sports minister Kim Chong responds to reporters' questions after arriving at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in Seoul on Nov 16, 2016.
Former vice sports minister Kim Chong responds to reporters' questions after arriving at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in Seoul on Nov 16, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean prosecutors questioned a former vice-sports minister as their probe into the corruption scandal engulfing President Park Geun Hye spreads to preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Ms Park is under pressure over her shadowy confidant Choi Soon Sil, who is accused of using her personal ties with the president to coerce local firms to donate millions of dollars to non-profit foundations which Ms Choi then used for personal gain.

Mr Kim Chong, who served as vice-sports minister for three years until last month, is accused of helping Ms Choi's foundations win lucrative state contracts.

He was mobbed by reporters as he walked into the Seoul prosecutors' office on Wednesday (Nov 16), TV footage showed.

He is also accused of pressuring a former head of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games organising committee to resign after he refused to award a contract to a firm linked with Choi.

Mr Cho Yang Ho, the chairman of Korean Air, took the helm at the committee in 2014 when it was struggling with construction delays and funding problems.

He is widely credited with turning the situation around and bringing in big-name sponsorship - but abruptly resigned in May.

 
 

He has said media reports that he was forced out by Mr Kim for refusing to help Ms Choi are "90 per cent correct".

Prosecutors are also investigating whether Mr Kim played a role in a recent decision by his ministry to provide a cash subsidy to a winter sports foundation run by Ms Choi's niece, who is widely seen as her key aide.

Ms Choi, whose father was a shady religious figure and a long-time mentor to Ms Park until his death in 1994, was arrested earlier this month for abuse of power and fraud. Two presidential aides have also been arrested.

As the probe widens, investigators have grilled the heads of some of the country's top conglomerates including Samsung and Hyundai, and on Tuesday raided the offices of Samsung's advertising unit.

Prosecutors are also seeking to quiz Ms Park over her role in the scandal - which could make her the first South Korean president to be questioned while in office.

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

But many have argued the sitting president can be investigated by prosecutors and then charged after leaving office.

Ms Park has seen her approval ratings plunge, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to Seoul's streets on Saturday demanding she resign.