Woman at heart of South Korea President Park's political scandal returns to Seoul

Protestors wearing masks of South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) and her confidante Choi Soon Sil (left) posing for a performance during a rally denouncing a scandal over President Park's aide in Seoul on Oct 27, 2016.
Protestors wearing masks of South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) and her confidante Choi Soon Sil (left) posing for a performance during a rally denouncing a scandal over President Park's aide in Seoul on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
Mr Lee Kyung Jae, lawyer for Ms Choi Soon Sil, leaving after a news conference in Seoul yesterday. He said Ms Choi "expressed her deep apology to the people for letting them down and causing them frustration".
Mr Lee Kyung Jae, lawyer for Ms Choi Soon Sil, leaving after a news conference in Seoul yesterday. He said Ms Choi "expressed her deep apology to the people for letting them down and causing them frustration".PHOTO: REUTERS

She will cooperate with probe, says lawyer; Park accepts resignation of five top secretaries to cool public anger

SEOUL • The woman at the centre of a political scandal engulfing South Korean President Park Geun Hye returned to Seoul yesterday amid growing calls for the leader to relinquish some of her official duties.

Lawmakers from the opposition and even the ruling Saenuri Party are calling for a "neutral and non- partisan Cabinet" to take over some key executive duties from the presidential Blue House.

Other lawmakers and experts have also floated the idea of a "premier with responsibilities" to overcome the paralysis in the government in the remainder of Ms Park's term, reported The Korea Herald.

With just over a year left to run, Ms Park's presidency has unravelled over shocking revelations that she discussed and sought advice on government policy from Ms Choi, who has no official position and no security clearance. Ms Choi, who has been holed up in Germany since early last month, flew into Seoul yesterday morning on a flight from London, her lawyer Lee Kyung Jae told reporters.

In a move to assuage public anger, Ms Park yesterday accepted the resignations of five of her 11 top secretaries, including the chief of staff.

"As she is deeply cognisant of the gravity of the current situation, President Park has decided to conduct a shake-up of the presidential secretariat to meet the demands from various walks of life for a personnel revamp," presidential spokesman Jung Youn Kuk told reporters.

There were no fresh comments from Ms Park yesterday. She reportedly met about a dozen leaders from civic society behind closed doors to gather opinions on how to deal with the situation.

With just over a year left to run, Ms Park's presidency has unravelled over shocking revelations that she discussed and sought advice on government policy from her long-time friend Choi Soon Sil, who has no official position and no security clearance.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in downtown Seoul last Saturday, demanding Ms Park's resignation, according to Agence France-Presse.

Ms Choi, who has been holed up in Germany since early last month, flew into Seoul yesterday morning on a flight from London, her lawyer Lee Kyung Jae told reporters. "Choi told me she will cooperate with the investigation and expressed her deep apology to the people for letting them down and causing them frustration," said the lawyer.

 

As well as a public uproar over her relationship with and apparent control over Ms Park, the 60-year-old Ms Choi faces charges of using her links with the South Korean President to pressure major companies such as Samsung into donating large sums to two non-profit foundations that she set up.

Outgoing Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Woo Byung Woo and Senior Presidential Secretary for Policy Coordination Ahn Chong Bum are suspected of assisting Ms Choi to raise US$70 million (S$97 million) in slush funds.

Also let go yesterday were Mr Lee Jae Man, Mr Jeong Ho Seong and Mr Ahn Bong Geun, who have been working for Ms Park for nearly two decades. The trio allegedly have been playing a bridging role between the President and Ms Choi, reported The Korea Herald.

Prosecutors have raided the homes of presidential aides suspected of being involved in the scandal, but attempts to raid their offices have been thwarted. The presidential office refused them entry, citing the need to protect state secrets, reported Yonhap News Agency.

Writing on the website of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Dr Victor Cha, the think- tank's Korea chair, said that despite calls for Ms Park to resign, the "more likely outcome is that she may heed demands to leave the Saenuri Party, particularly if Saenuri wants to distance itself from Park in the 2017 presidential election year".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Woman at heart of President's political scandal returns to Seoul'. Print Edition | Subscribe