South Korea's prosecutors raid presidential office, aides' homes in probe over influence-peddling scandal

South Korea citizens and members of civic groups holding placards during a protest, demanding President Park Geun Hye to step down, in downtown Seoul on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP/BLOOMBERG) - South Korean prosecutors on Saturday (Oct 29) raided the presidential Blue House, as well as the homes and offices of senior advisers to President Park Geun Hye, as she struggled with a corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving a close family friend.

The crisis centred around Ms Park's long-time confidante Choi Soon Sil has rocked her presidency, thanks largely to a lurid back-story involving talk of religious cults, shamanist rituals and corruption.

In Saturday's raids, prosecutors confiscated computers and documents from the homes of a top presidential adviser and two other aides as well as a deputy culture minister, Yonhap news agency said. They also searched some offices in the presidential Blue House complex, Yonhap said.

The investigators searched the offices of two presidential secretaries at 2pm in Seoul and may continue until Sunday, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office said in a text message.

It added that the homes of seven current and former government employees were visited in the morning.

It is the first time the Blue House has been searched since prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to enter the presidential complex in 2012 under President Lee Myung Bak over a corruption scandal involving his retirement home.

The move came ahead of a mass protest in Seoul, organised after it emerged that Ms Park had allowed Ms Choi, who has no official post or security clearance, to meddle in affairs of state.

Thousands of people were expected to turn out for the candle-lit demonstration and call on the president, whose popularity ratings have plunged to record lows, to step down.

Ms Choi is being investigated for using her ties to Ms Park to coerce money out of major conglomerates, but the real shock has been revelations that Ms Park had allowed Ms Choi to vet her presidential speeches and apparently advise her on crucial policy choices.

Ms Park has publicly apologised and late on Friday she told 10 of her senior advisers to tender their resignations ahead of a reshuffle of her presidential office.

Ms Choi, 60, is the daughter of shadowy religious figure Choi Tae Min, who headed a cult-like group and was a long-time mentor to Park up until his death in 1994.

Media reports have portrayed Ms Choi as a Rasputin-like figure with an inappropriate and unhealthy influence over Park that she inherited from her father.

Ms Choi left the country for Germany in early September as reports of her alleged influence-peddling began to emerge.

An early banner displayed at the venue for Saturday's rally read "Choi come back, Park get out".

Ms Choi's lawyer said she was well aware of the "gravity" of the situation and was "willing to return home to be questioned and punished if she did anything wrong".

Prosecutors have taken in two of Ms Choi's close aides for questioning, including one who told reporters that Ms Choi had been behaving as Ms Park's de facto regent.

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