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(2nd LD) Park suspected of colluding with friend, aides in corruption: prosecution

2016/11/20 13:22

(ATTN: RECASTS throughout with more details; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, Nov. 20 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye is suspected of having played a part in the corruption and influence-peddling scheme involving her close friend and key aides, prosecutors said Sunday, after weeks of an intensive investigation into the scandal that has been rocking the country.

Park allegedly "colluded" with her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, suspected of interfering in various state affairs and bullying local conglomerates in collaboration with two former presidential aides, the prosecution team looking into the scandal said in an interim probe result.

Still, the prosecution said it cannot indict Park, citing the Constitution, which stipulates that the country's president is immune from prosecution except in cases of insurrection or treason.

"Based on such judgment, the special probe team will continue investigating the president," Lee Young-ryeol, the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office who heads the team, told a press briefing.

Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of Park, was indicted earlier in the day on a string of charges, including abuse of authority, coercion, attempted coercion and attempted fraud, according to the prosecution.

The 60-year-old is suspected of pressuring 53 companies to donate a combined 77.4 billion won (US$65.7 million) to two nonprofit foundations she allegedly controlled. Choi was also charged with attempting to funnel money from one of the foundations to a company she controlled.

South Korea's retail giant Lotte, No. 1 carmaker Hyundai Motor Group, steelmaker POSCO and telecom giant KT are some of the big business groups that were forced to give business favors to Choi.

Lee Young-ryeol, the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office who headed the team investigating the influence-peddling scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, announces the interim probe results during a press briefing at the prosecution's office in Seoul on Nov. 20, 2016. (Yonhap) Lee Young-ryeol, the chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office who headed the team investigating the influence-peddling scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, announces the interim probe results during a press briefing at the prosecution's office in Seoul on Nov. 20, 2016. (Yonhap)

An Chong-bum, former senior secretary for policy coordination, was indicted on the same day for allegedly collaborating with Choi in the process, the prosecution said.

Prosecutors also pressed charges against Jeong Ho-seong, who served as former senior secretary for private presidential affairs, on suspicions of handing over confidential government and presidential documents to Park's confidante.

Jeong is suspected of delivering a total of 180 documents, including 47 confidential materials, to Choi from January 2013, when the Park Geun-hye administration was launched, to April this year.

The documents -- which ranged from Park's speech notes for meetings with the Cabinet and chief secretaries, schedules of her overseas trips and plans on a government reshuffle to those related to diplomatic issues -- were handed over via emails, fax and courier, according to the prosecution.

An and Jeong are Park's top aides who resigned late last month in the wake of the scandal. The two, as well as Choi, are currently in custody.

The president was booked as a suspect as she is known to have been involved in most of the allegations raised against the three indicted Sunday.

The prosecution stipulated in their written indictment that the irregularities were committed "in collusion with President Park Geun-hye," said Roh Seung-kwon, a senior prosecutor at the investigation team.

The indictment came as Park accelerated her resumption of state affairs, naming new vice ministers, despite calls for her to step down over the scandal.

On Thursday, her attorney Yoo Yeong-ha effectively rejected prosecutors' repeated demand for her to undergo questioning over her possible role in the alleged irregularities before they press charges against Choi. Yoo said he will prepare for the interrogation so it can take place sometime this week.

Park's approval rating remained at a record-low 5 percent last week, according to local pollster Gallup Korea, amid a series of anti-Park rallies held throughout the country.

On Nov. 12, some hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets in the largest number since the democratization of the country decades ago. Organizers said up to 1 million people took part in the protest, demanding Park's resignation, while police put the number at 260,000.

Another massive anti-Park rally was held in downtown Seoul on Saturday for the fourth straight weekend.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye closes her eyes after making a public apology over leaking some confidential documents, including presidential speech drafts, to her confidante Choi Sun-sil to get her advice at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Oct. 25, 2016. (Yonhap) South Korean President Park Geun-hye closes her eyes after making a public apology over leaking some confidential documents, including presidential speech drafts, to her confidante Choi Sun-sil to get her advice at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Oct. 25, 2016. (Yonhap)

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