South Korea's political crisis escalates as prosecutors decide whether to arrest Samsung chief

Mr Jay Y. Lee, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics answering questions during a parliamentary hearing over the Choi Soon Sil gate at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea.
Mr Jay Y. Lee, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics answering questions during a parliamentary hearing over the Choi Soon Sil gate at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean prosecutors will decide on Monday (Jan 16) whether the head of Samsung Group, the country's biggest conglomerate, should be arrested as an influence-peddling scandal engulfing President Park Geun Hye's government gained momentum.

Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was held overnight on Thursday for questioning, and prosecutors were also gunning on Monday for another key figure in investigations that have led through the corridors of power and big business.

National Pension Service (NPS) chairman Moon Hyung Pyo was indicted on charges of abuse of power and giving false testimony, while President Park's friend and the woman at the centre of the scandal, Choi Soon Sil, appeared before the Constitutional Court.

"Further details (on Moon) will be explained at a briefing,"the special prosecutors' team said in a text message.

Moon was arrested in December after acknowledging ordering the world's third-largest pension fund to support the US$8 billion (S$11.4 billion) merger in 2015 of two Samsung affiliates while he was head of the health ministry, which oversees the NPS.

South Korea has been gripped by political crisis for months, with Ms Park impeached by Parliament in December.

If the motion is upheld by the Constitutional Court, an election would have to be held in two months, with former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expected to be a candidate.

Former opposition party leader Moon Jae In maintained his lead in an opinion poll for presidential favourites, while Mr Ban tightened the gap in second place, a Realmeter survey commissioned by the Maeil Business Newspaper showed on Monday.

The special prosecutors' office had said it would make a decision on Samsung's Mr Lee on Sunday, but needed more time to deliberate all factors, including the potential economic impact.

Ms Park remains in office but has been stripped of her powers, while the Constitutional Court decides whether to make her the country's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office.

Choi is accused of colluding with Ms Park to pressure big businesses, including Samsung, to contribute to non-profit foundations backing the president's initiatives. Choi, in detention and on trial on charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud, has denied wrongdoing.

Ms Park has also denied wrongdoing, although she has apologised for exercising poor judgment in her ties with Choi.

Samsung has acknowledged providing funds to the three institutions but has repeatedly denied accusations of lobbying to push through the merger.