November 04, 2016 12:19
Prosecutors are about to enter uncharted territory as they seek to take the unprecedented step of investigating an incumbent president.
President Park Geun-hye is suspected of giving Choi Soon-sil, a friend of 40 years with no official post, unheard-of access to government business, and easing her friend's path to fabulous wealth although Choi has no obvious talents other than influence peddling.
Prosecutors had initially hoped to avoid taking what in Korea's hierarchical society is a terrifying step for subordinates. Lee Young-ryul, who leads the special investigation team, said only last week that Park "is not a subject of investigation."
But as the probe engulfed An Chong-bum, a close associate of Park's and former presidential secretary for policy coordination, politicians and the prosecution began to realize that they cannot put it off much longer.
Park in a public address on Friday promised to comply. "I will fully cooperate with the investigation if necessary, and I am willing to accept scrutiny by a special prosecution team," she said.
Legal experts pointed out from the start that the president is at the heart of the scandal and must face questioning. They say that only the presidential office would be able to get big businesses to cough up W77.4 billion in the course of just a few days for the dubious Mir and K-Sports foundations (US$1=W1,143).
An's testimony that Park told him to "take care" of the foundations and was given regular updates on their progress also makes questioning the president unavoidable. Choi continues to stall, but mounting evidence shows that she staffed the nonprofits with drinking buddies, who promptly siphoned off money to a company Choi ran.
Also, the president will have to explain how copies of her speeches and other classified documents ended up on an unencrypted tablet PC that seems to belong to Choi. Park has already partly admitted letting Choi edit her speeches, and presidential speech writers have spoken of their dismay that professionally drafted speeches ended up in the peculiar convoluted style that has characterized Park's sparse public utterances.
Jeong Ho-seong, the former presidential secretary for private presidential affairs, denies delivering classified Cheong Wa Dae documents to Choi.
Prosecutors are apparently close to completing their plan of action. Park is widely expected to be asked to submit written answers to questions, but there are calls for prosecutors to visit Cheong Wa Dae and question her in person.
"We could face overwhelming criticism should we proceed with written questioning considering the extent of public outrage," a prosecutor said.
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