SEOUL • South Korean prosecutors questioned a former vice-minister for sports yesterday as their probe into the corruption scandal engulfing President Park Geun Hye spreads to preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Mr Kim Chong, who served as vice-minister for sports for three years until last month, is accused of helping foundations linked to a long-time friend of Ms Park win lucrative state contracts.
The confidante Choi Soon Sil has been arrested and charged with pressuring South Korean conglomerates to donate US$68 million (S$96 million) to K-Sports Foundation and The Blue K, two foundations controlled by her. She is also accused of using her ties with the President to meddle in state affairs and key appointments of government officials.
Mr Kim, a friend of Choi, is suspected of being appointed to the position in 2013 on her recommendation, reported Korea Times.
The former Hanyang University professor is also suspected of requesting special consideration for jobs for his close aides, and for supporting projects Choi and her close friend Cha Eun Taek, a visual arts director, are involved in.
Mr Kim 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 company linked to Choi.
MR KIM CHONG
Former vice-minister for sports
Accused of helping foundations linked to a long-time friend of President Park Geun Hye win lucrative state contracts
CHOI SOON SIL
Close friend of Ms Park
Arrested on charges of fraud and abuse of power
Mr Cho Yang Ho, 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 that media reports claiming he was forced by Mr Kim to leave because he refused to help 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 Choi's niece, who is widely seen as the latter's key aide.
Allegations have surfaced that Choi, her niece Jang Si Ho and Cha created numerous ghost companies to win high-end contracts for the Pyeongchang Winter Games, reported Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo.
The Pyeongchang Organising Committee has denied the allegations.
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 for insurrection or treason. But many have argued that the sitting president can be investigated by prosecutors and then charged after leaving office.
Prosecutors said yesterday that they plan to question Ms Park no later than tomorrow, declining her lawyer's request for more time.
They have seized notes from a former presidential secretary which reportedly showed that Ms Park ordered him to raise funds from conglomerates for the two foundations linked to Choi.
Opposition parties have intensified their calls for President Park to step down. Mr Ahn Cheol Soo from the People's Party, a presidential hopeful, criticised Ms Park for not cooperating with the prosecution.
"She has become unqualified as president, both politically and morally. She is no longer our leader," he said yesterday.
"She should not be allowed to complete her term as she wishes. This is not her country. It is our country."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS