Two top Park aides held as scandal escalates

South Koreans hold up banners that read "Park Geun Hye out" during a protest against the President in Seoul.
South Koreans hold up banners that read "Park Geun Hye out" during a protest against the President in Seoul. PHOTO: EPA

Arrests follow massive street protest against besieged South Korean leader

SEOUL • South Korean prosecutors arrested two former top presidential aides yesterday in a snowballing influence-peddling scandal which has seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Park Geun Hye.

Mr Ahn Jong Beom, a former senior adviser to Ms Park, was formally arrested on charges of abuse of power and attempted coercion, the Yonhap news agency reported.

He is suspected of helping Ms Park's close friend Choi Soon Sil collect millions of dollars in donations from conglomerates such as Samsung to two dubious non-profit foundations which Ms Choi set up and allegedly used for personal gain.

Mr Ahn, who has been in custody since last Wednesday after stepping down late last month, said he would "take responsibility" for failing to properly advise the president, Yonhap reported.

Prosecutors also arrested Mr Jeong Ho Seong, another former presidential aide, over allegations that he leaked classified information. Mr Jeong, who was known as Ms Park's right-hand man and has assisted her since 1998, is suspected of passing presidential speeches and official documents to Ms Choi.

Ms Park's approval ratings have hit a historic low of 5 per cent - a record for a sitting president - over the scandal involving Ms Choi.

UNCOVERING THE TRUTH

All senior secretaries must fully cooperate in uncovering the truth beyond any doubt.

MR HAN GWANG OK, Ms Park's new chief of staff, on the gravity of the situation.

Ms Choi has been arrested for fraud and also stands accused of meddling in state affairs - including government appointments and policy decisions - despite holding no official position.

Ms Park has been scrambling to restore trust in her administration amid the deepening crisis, reshuffling ministers and senior advisers to bring in figures from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.

But the reshuffle has done little to assuage public anger, with tens of thousands of protesters rallying to demand her resignation in a candlelight demonstration on Saturday.

Police said around 50,000 people had turned out for the rally - more than double the size of a similar anti-Park protest the week before. Organisers said the number was closer to 200,000.

Mr Han Gwang Ok, Ms Park's new chief of staff who was appointed last week, said Saturday's protest reflected the gravity of the situation. "All senior secretaries must fully cooperate in uncovering the truth beyond any doubt," Mr Han said during a meeting with the presidential secretaries yesterday.

In a televised address last Friday, Ms Park agreed to be questioned by prosecutors and sought to portray herself as an over-trusting friend who had let her guard down at a moment of weakness. Her voice choking with emotion, Ms Park said she had been living a "lonely life" as president and had turned to Ms Choi for company and help.

The South Korean media has portrayed Ms Choi, whose late father was a shadowy religious leader and an important mentor to Ms Park, as a Rasputin-like figure who wielded an unhealthy influence over the president.

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.

Ms Park has been forced to deny that she fell for a religious cult or allowed shamanist rituals to be performed in the presidential Blue House. Despite the mass protests, Ms Park is not expected to resign with just over a year of her single term in office left.

Whatever transpires, the very personal nature of the scandal has severely undermined her ability to govern, turning her into the lamest of lame-duck leaders at a time of slowing economic growth, rising unemployment and elevated military tensions with North Korea.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'Two top Park aides held as scandal escalates'. Print Edition | Subscribe