South Korean president could face probe over influence peddling scandal; aide in custody

Protesters wearing cut-out of South Korean President Park Geun Hye (centre) and Choi Soon Sil attend a protest denouncing Ms Park over an influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean prosecutors detained a former presidential aide as an influence-peddling scandal moves closer to embattled leader Park Geun Hye, with the justice minister warning on Thursday (Nov 3) that Ms Park could face a probe.

Mr Ahn Jong Beom, who was dismissed on Sunday, is the second person to be taken into emergency detention after Ms Park's close friend Choi Soon Sil was held on Monday for questioning in the snowballing scandal.

Ms Park is scrambling to deflect rising public anger over suggestions that Ms Choi - the daughter of a shadowy religious figure - vetted presidential speeches, had access to classified documents, and used her influence for personal enrichment.

The scandal has shaken the presidency, exposing Ms Park to public outrage and ridicule and, with just over a year left in office, seen her approval ratings plunge into the single digits.

Ms Choi has denied allegations that she used her friendship with Ms Park to strongarm companies like Samsung into donating large sums to non-profit foundations that she then used for personal gains, Yonhap news agency reported.

Mr Ahn is suspected of helping Ms Choi collect the dubious donations.

"The president herself understands well the gravity of the situation", Justice Minister Kim Hyun Woong told parliament on Thursday, Yonhap reported. "Depending on where the ongoing investigation leads, I will consider whether it is necessary and legally possible to investigate (Park) to find truth," he said.

Under South Korea's constitution, the incumbent president may not be charged with a criminal offence except for insurrection or treason. But it is not clear whether the sitting president can be probed by prosecutors and then charged after they leave office.

"If the president calls for a probe, there would be no limits to the investigation," the minister added, in comments that indicate, for the first time since the scandal broke in September, that Ms Park herself could face questioning.

In an effort to deflect rising public criticism, Ms Park had been urged to create a neutral cabinet by bringing in members from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.

On Thursday, she announced her pick for chief of staff, Han Gwang Ok, a former aide to late President Kim Dae Jung, in an appointment the presidential Blue House said would help get the rattled administration back on track.

The 74-year-old veteran politician, a long-serving liberal who switched sides and joined Ms Park's administration in 2013, has dedicated his life to "democracy and national reconciliation".

"He is well suited to assist the president from the citizens' perspective," presidential spokesman Jung Youn Kuk said.

Ms Park has also reached across the traditional political divide with a host of new appointments, including tapping a liberal politician as her new prime minister - a largely symbolic post.

But the opposition has dismissed the reshuffle as a smokescreen, calling for a full investigation of Ms Park's relationship with Ms Choi and vowing to block the new prime minister's nomination by wielding their combined parliamentary majority.

The media has portrayed the 60-year-old Choi as a Rasputin-like figure, who wielded an unhealthy influence over Ms Park that continued after her presidential election victory in December 2012.

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. He befriended a traumatised Ms Park after the 1974 assassination of her mother - whom he said had appeared to him in a dream. Ms Park treated him as a mentor and subsequently formed a close bond with his daughter.

Ms Choi flew back to Seoul Sunday from Germany to submit to herself for questioning, saying after she fought her way through a scrum of press and protesters that she had "committed a deadly sin," Yonhap reported.

Prosecutors are seeking a warrant to formally arrest Ms Choi - who they have deemed a flight risk and "unstable" - before the emergency detention period expires.

The scandal comes as South Korea, Asia's fourth largest economy, faces slumping exports and high unemployment amid rising nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

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