Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of 'regret'

A pro-government activist holds a portrait of South Korean President Park Geun Hye outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul on Feb 27, 2017 PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's President Park Geun Hye expressed "belated regret" on Monday (Feb 27) over the scandal that triggered her impeachment, as the Constitutional Court wrapped up hearings on her fate and her supporters screamed threats outside.

Park was elected in 2012 with the highest vote share of any presidential candidate in South Korea's democratic era.

But she was impeached by parliament in December over a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal that prompted millions to take to the streets to call for her ouster.

She has since been on trial for her political life at the Constitutional Court in Seoul, which is set to decide in March whether to approve her removal from office - which would trigger new elections - or return her to the Blue House.

Park has not attended any of the hearings, which began last month.

Her lawyers maintain that she was not aware of any wrongdoing and blamed her secret confidante Choi Soon Sil, who is accused of using her presidential ties to force local firms to "donate" nearly US$70 million (S$98.5 million) to non-profit foundations.

In a statement read out by her advocate on Monday, Park reiterated that her only fault was trusting Choi and seeking advice from her longtime friend, who took care of her daily affairs for years, including her wardrobe choices.

"In retrospect, I have belated regret that I should have been more cautious with my trust in her," she said in her final defence to the court's eight sitting judges.

Park bemoaned a "miserable reality" in which her policies and actions had become objects of "misunderstanding and suspicion".

But she has rejected repeated requests from the judges to make herself available for questioning, and has also refused to answer questions from prosecutors probing the scandal.

Outside the court, hundreds of Park's elderly supporters loudly protested against the drive to remove her, with some attempting to break through hundreds of police guarding the court.

Some waved banners threatening "civil war" if the impeachment goes through, others hurled personal threats against the judges.

"I will kill all of them if they impeach the poor president!" shouted one.

Dozens of rival demonstrators held banners backing her removal.

Choi is on trial for coercion and abuse of power.

The two women became close through Choi's father, a shady religious figure who was Park's mentor for years.

Park's own father, dictator Park Chung Hee, was assassinated in 1979 by his intelligence chief.

The 65-year-old president is accused of colluding with her friend to extract money from local firms as well as letting her handle a wide range of state affairs including nominations to senior posts, despite having no official title or security clearance.

A number of former presidential advisors and cabinet members have been arrested or charged for their involvements in the scandal, including allegedly leaking secret state documents to Choi at Park's order.

Lawmakers pushing for Park's impeachment say she betrayed voters.

"A series of unbelievable developments in recent weeks have left South Koreans deeply insulted, humiliated and frustrated," Kweon Seong Dong, a member of the parliamentary impeachment committee, told the hearing.

"We urge the constitutional court to strictly hold her accountable so that people can no longer feel ashamed of the Republic of Korea."

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