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(News Focus) Park makes bid to salvage presidency amid scandal fallout

2016/11/04 21:17

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye on Friday took another step to salvage her presidency as she announced her intention to face an investigation over a snowballing corruption scandal involving her longtime confidante.

Opposition parties, however, intensified their offensive against the beleaguered chief executive whose approval rating has gone into free fall with the latest survey putting the figure at a woeful 5 percent, the lowest since her inauguration in February 2013.

The scandal involving Park's close friend Choi Soon-sil has also reopened a factional rift within her Saenuri Party, as some ruling party members who are not close to the president ramped up their calls for the dissolution of the party leadership led by staunch Park loyalist Lee Jung-hyun.

During a nationally televised address to the nation, Park said she would accept a special probe by an independent counsel, as well as questioning by the ongoing prosecutorial probe, "if necessary," which raised the prospect of her becoming the first sitting South Korean president to face an inquiry.

In the address, the second in 10 days, Park renewed her apology, saying her heart "excruciatingly" aches due to the "irreversible scars" on people's minds that the scandal incurred.

"I once again apologize from the bottom of my heart for the indescribably great disappointment and worries the case related to Choi Soon-sil has caused," Park said, stressing the scandal was "my fault."

  

President Park Geun-hye speaks during an address to the nation at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Nov. 4, 2016. (Yonhap) President Park Geun-hye speaks during an address to the nation at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Nov. 4, 2016. (Yonhap)

Should Park undergo an investigation, state prosecutors could visit her rather than the chief executive appearing at the prosecution, observers said, adding that the probe could also proceed in written form.

Park faces accusations that she allowed Choi access to advance drafts of her public speeches and presidential documents, some of which reportedly included confidential information, possibly in breach of a law governing the handling of presidential records.

The president is also suspected of playing a role in raising funds from major conglomerates to establish two nonprofit foundations dedicated to promoting Korean culture and sports. Choi is being investigated to determine if she misappropriated money from these foundations.

Despite Park's repeated apologies, it may not be easy for Park to placate mounting public outrage, particularly ahead of massive anti-Park rallies planned for the weekend in Seoul, Busan and other cities across the country, analysts said.

This photo, taken on Nov. 3, 2016, shows citizens holding a candlelight vigil in Jecheon, 168 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 3, 2016, shows citizens holding a candlelight vigil in Jecheon, 168 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

"The statement would not be enough to help ally seething public criticism over the scandal," Lee Chung-hee, politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.

"But now the ball is in the court of the National Assembly. We have to watch how opposition parties, as well as the ruling Saenuri Party, will respond following Park's second apology and expression of her intention to undergo the probe," he added.

Rival parties showed mixed reactions.

The ruling Saenuri Party said that Park's latest speech to the nation underscored her resolve to get to the bottom of the scandal.

"It was Park's appeal (to the nation), which reflected her sincerity and strong resolve to put down her authority as president, verify the fact (behind the scandal) and prevent a recurrence," Yeom Dong-yeol, the ruling party's spokesman, said in his statement.

The main opposition Democratic Party, however, discounted Park's speech as a mere "personal letter of apology," stressing that the president failed to offer realistic solutions to address the current political quandary.

"In the speech, there was nothing at all to indicate that she is responsible for (Choi's) meddling in state affairs as well as the paralysis in governmental matters," party spokesman Youn Kwan-suk told reporters.

Some analysts said that the opposition party's negative reaction is largely due to the president's failure to clarify her position over whether to delegate part of her executive authority to Prime Minister-designate Kim Byong-joon.

"What people wanted to hear from Park were two things: her willingness to face a probe and her decision to take a back seat to the new prime minister," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, said.

"But she made no mention of the latter, a reason why the statement apparently failed to defuse public protests over the scandal."

   Though Park did not touch on the issue of transferring part of her presidential authority to Kim, Park has already clarified her position to do so in her consultations with the prime minister designate, presidential aides said.

"Park's will (to share her executive power with a new premier) is firm," one presidential aide said, declining to be named.

Observers said Park is expected to explain her position on the issue when she and the heads of the ruling and opposition parties gather for talks that she proposed on Friday.

Park's aides have said that if approved by parliament, the new prime minister will call all the shots on domestic affairs such as social and economic policy, with the president taking control of security and foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate Kim said that he "appreciated" Park's decision to face an investigation. A day earlier, he said, "Everybody is equal before the law."

   Despite Park's vow to strengthen communication with them, opposition party lawmakers continued to bash the president.

Choo Mi-ae, leader of the Democratic Party, upbraided Park for failing to properly grasp the current situation, urging the president to stop running the country and accept a parliamentary probe in addition to an independent counsel investigation into the scandal.

She also rejected Park's proposal to hold a meeting with the president and leaders of the ruling and opposition parties.

"If these demands are not met, the Democratic Party, along with citizens, will stage a campaign to oust the current administration," Choo said.

Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaks during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Nov. 4, 2016. (Yonhap) Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaks during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Nov. 4, 2016. (Yonhap)

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