S. Korean President Named As A Criminal Suspect In Cronyism Scandal | KERA News

S. Korean President Named As A Criminal Suspect In Cronyism Scandal

Nov 21, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 5:14 pm

A swirling cronyism scandal continues to grip South Korea, where prosecutors announced Sunday that the president is a suspect in a criminal fraud investigation that's already ensnared her close friend and senior aides. President Park Geun-hye made history, becoming the first sitting South Korean president to be a suspect in a criminal investigation.

Mass demonstrations against the president have continued across the country. For the fourth weekend in a row, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans crowded the streets of central Seoul with a simple demand: Step down.

"I think Park clearly thinks that she can ride it out," says David Kang, who heads the Korea Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. He believes she'll try to hang on, as she's immune from criminal indictment until she's out of office. But the corruption scandal has driven her approval rating to 5 percent — the lowest in Korean presidential history.

"We'll see whether she can actually survive another 12 months or so," Kang says, which is about the time left before the next presidential election.

In a packed press conference Sunday, prosecutors raised the stakes, giving opponents legal ground for impeachment proceedings by accusing Park of having a "considerable" role in the influence-peddling scandal that's swallowed up her senior aides and longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil. Prosecutors believe Park was a co-conspirator in a scheme that allowed that friend, Choi, to enrich herself by using the power of the presidency to pressure South Korean companies to pony up millions in donations to Choi's non-profits.

"Based on the evidence, the special investigation team concluded that the president colluded ... for most parts of her confidant's crimes," Chief Prosecutor Lee Young-ryeol said Sunday.

Park's lawyer, in a statement, denied the allegations and called them "unfair political attacks." But Park has few allies left.

"It's not clear even who her supporters would be within [her] party itself. So this is a totally unprecedented situation in Korean politics, which is used to chaos," Kang says.

Even so — lawmakers here haven't started impeachment proceedings against Park. Part of the problem is impeachment proceedings could take up to a year, about the same amount of time as there is left in her term.

"If she leaves, power vacuum. If she stays, power vacuum. It's not clear no matter what happens whether we can fix that in the near future," Kang says.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A cronyism scandal surrounding South Korea's president is still gripping that country. Prosecutors announced over the weekend that the president is now a suspect in a criminal fraud investigation. And NPR's Elise Hu reports that that is new precedent for a sitting president.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: For the fourth weekend in a row, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans crowded the streets of central Seoul with a simple demand. Step down, they chanted in the direction of the presidential residence. But President Park Geun-hye, by all indications, isn't going anywhere on her own.

DAVID KANG: I think Park clearly thinks that she can ride it out.

HU: David Kang heads the Korea Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. He says she'll try to hang on since she has immunity from prosecution while she's in office. But the corruption scandal has driven her approval rating to 5 percent, the lowest in Korean presidential history.

KANG: And we'll see whether she can actually survive another 12 months or so.

HU: In a packed press conference Sunday, prosecutors raised the stakes. They named Park as a suspect in a criminal investigation, a first for a sitting president. Prosecutors believe Park was a co-conspirator in a scheme that allowed a close friend to enrich herself by using the power of the presidency to pressure South Korean companies to pony up millions in so-called donations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE YOUNG-RYEOL: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "Based on the evidence," said chief prosecutor Lee Young-ryeol, "the special investigation team concluded that the president colluded for most parts of her confidant's crimes." Park's spokesman in a statement denied the allegations and called them, quote, "unfair political attacks." But David Kang says the president has few allies left.

KANG: It's not clear even who her supporters would be within the party itself. So this is a totally unprecedented situation in Korean politics, which is used to chaos.

HU: Even so, lawmakers here haven't started impeachment proceedings against Park, who only has a year left in her term.

KANG: If she leaves - power vacuum. If she stays - power vacuum. It's not clear, no matter what happens, whether we can fix that in the near future.

HU: Part of the problem - impeachment proceedings might take the same amount of time as she has left in office. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.