December 16, 2016 10:12
Independent counsel Park Young-soo on Thursday slapped a travel ban on President Park Geun-hye's former chief of staff after he was caught lying to lawmakers.
Kim Ki-choon is one of several suspects in the massive influence-peddling and corruption scandal that has engulfed the president who are banned from travel even before the independent counsel formally starts his probe next week.
Park Young-soo also warned he could conduct a surprise raid on Cheong Wa Dae, although staff there have had months to shred incriminating evidence.
"We can't interrogate the president more than once or twice," Park told reporters. "We need to be fully prepared." He added there could be "security problems" if she is called into his office in downtown Seoul, "and we need to treat the president with due respect."
That means Park Geun-hye will probably not be questioned until the independent counsel has a clear picture of how Cheong Wa Dae extracted W77.4 billion from top conglomerates like Samsung for two dodgy foundations controlled by the president's long-time friend Choi Soon-sil.
Others who have been banned from travel include Kim Young-jae, a plastic surgeon whose business allegedly benefited from his association with Choi and who is also rumored to have tended to the president in the notorious "missing seven hours," when she was nowhere to be found during the 2014 ferry disaster.
They also include Park's official physician Kim Sang-man, who allegedly turned a blind eye to the president's addiction to quack anti-aging treatments, and several tycoons who gave money to Choi and her foundations. Former presidential secretary Woo Byung-woo, who is suspected of leading the cover-up, is under a separate travel ban from prosecutors.
An official at the independent counsel's office said, "You can say that we have taken all necessary measures."
Park Young-soo plans to wrap up his initial probe within the mandated 70-day period. He could in theory extend the investigation by another month with the president's authorization, but since she is unlikely to give it he hopes to be done by the end of February.
"As we formally start the investigation early next week, we're making preparations so that suspects and witnesses can be questioned immediately," Park said. "Seventy days is not a long time."
Park wants to bring back and question Choi's daughter Chung Yoo-ra, who was the chief beneficiary of lavish gifts from Samsung and underhand privileges from the prestigious Ewha Womans University.
"We are verifying what measures prosecutors took involving Chung and what can be done to get her to return to Korea." The 21-year-old is lying low in Germany. "We will consider forcing her to return, but the best thing would be for her to come back voluntarily," Park added. The independent counsel has hired one lawyer familiar with German laws to facilitate cooperation with German authorities.
Park said he could also investigate suspects who lied to lawmakers in the National Assembly hearings. "There is a witness who is obviously not telling the truth," he said -- an apparent allusion to the former chief of staff, who told lawmakers he had never heard the name Choi Soon-sil until presented with video evidence to the contrary.
But Park is apparently having a tough time hiring the 40 special investigators he needs. "We're taking our time and hiring lawyers specializing in different fields," a spokesman for Park's office said. But there are rumors that law firms are telling their attorneys not to join the team because they do not want to get on the wrong side of the big conglomerates.
Some lawyers who at first accepted the job apparently changed their minds just a few hours later because their bosses told them to.
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