SEOUL • South Korean President Park Geun Hye faces a deepening crisis over allegations that an old friend enjoyed inappropriate influence over her - a scandal that has sapped her support to an all-time low.
Ms Park's popularity has slumped to 17.5 per cent, the lowest since she took office in February 2013, according to a poll released by Realmeter yesterday.
Forty-two per cent of people polled said Ms Park should face impeachment or step down. Support for her conservative Saenuri Party has fallen to 26.5 per cent, 4 percentage points behind the main opposition Democratic Party.
South Korean prosecutors have set up a task force to investigate the allegations amid calls by legislators for Ms Park to reshuffle the presidential office and the Cabinet.
It was unclear whether Ms Park herself would be investigated. Opposition parties have demanded a thorough investigation but have not raised the possibility of impeachment.
The South Korean won dropped to a near four-month low as investors grew more concerned about the potential ramifications of the scandal.
A public apology by Ms Park on Tuesday for giving her friend, Ms Choi Soon Sil, access to draft speeches during the first months of her presidency has done little to deflect demands that Ms Park reveal the full nature of her ties with Ms Choi and whether the latter enjoyed favours because of her friendship with the President.
Ms Park, the daughter of former president Park Chung Hee, said that she had consulted Ms Choi with good intentions and that Ms Choi was someone "who gave me help when I was going through a difficult time".
Ms Park is the latest South Korean leader to become engulfed in a scandal involving family or friends in the latter part of a presidency. None of the five democratically elected presidents before Ms Park finished their terms with more than 30 per cent approval. Ms Park has just over a year left in office.
Civic groups and students have called on Ms Park to step down and for criminal charges against her aides and others who helped release government documents to Ms Choi, who is not known to have held a government post.
Ms Choi, in her first comments after weeks of reports about her ties with Ms Park, told a newspaper that she had received drafts of the President's speeches after her election victory but denied that she had access to other official material or that she had influenced state affairs or benefited financially.
Media has speculated for weeks that Ms Choi may have used her friendship with Ms Park to play a role in the establishment of two foundations with contributions of about 50 billion won (S$61 million) from conglomerates, and that she had benefited from their operations. Ms Choi dismissed the speculation, denying that she had benefited from government funds or control of state finances.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE