South Korea: Park’s shadowy confidante returns to answer questions

Updated 6:01 AM EDT, Mon October 31, 2016
04:00 - Source: CNN
South Korean president urged to step down

Story highlights

South Korean President's confidante returns to South Korea for grilling from prosecutors

Thousands took to the streets over the weekend demanding President Park's resignation

(CNN) —  

The “Rasputin”- like woman at the center of the scandal rocking the South Korean presidency has returned home and faced questions from prosecutors Monday.

Choi Soon-sil, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s friend and an informal adviser, returned to Seoul Sunday and met with prosecutors Monday afternoon.

Her access to confidential government documents has led to noisy demands for Park’s ouster, with thousands taking to the streets Saturday demanding that she step down.

A crush of journalists and protesters surrounded Choi when she arrived back Monday, at times threatening to knock her off her feet.

Choi already had issued an apology and said that she had “committed a deadly sin,” according to CNN affiliate YTN.

“My apologies to the public,” she said. “Please forgive me.”

Her lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, has indicated that she will cooperate fully with the investigation.

Lee told reporters Sunday “she is deeply remorseful that she had caused frustration and despondency among the public.”

The prosecutor’s office has promised a quick and thorough investigation, according to YTN.

Significant influence

Choi’s family has long held influence over Park, said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

“The friend’s father, (Choi Tae-min), was head of a cultlike religion back in the ‘70s and began to mentor Ms. Park when she was in her early 20s,” he said. “So the family has had an extraordinary influence over Park Geun-hye for essentially her entire adult life.

“It’s much more than simply, ‘Oh she knows this person,’ it’s deeply intertwined, almost like they’re Rasputin and Park Geun-hye is just a puppet.”

People walk past a television screen at a railway station in Seoul showing President Park  making a public apology.
PHOTO: Jung Yeon-Je/Getty Images
People walk past a television screen at a railway station in Seoul showing President Park making a public apology.

Park embroiled in leaked documents scandal

Park embroiled in leaked documents scandal

Protests

Choi’s reappearance in South Korea comes after a restive weekend, with thousands gathering in the capital Saturday night to demand that Park step down, citing her judgment in sharing classified documents as evidence she is unfit to run the country.

“The Choi Soon-Sil crisis revealed that President Park Geun-Hye has neither the ability nor capacity to administer the government,” protest leader Han Sun-bum said Saturday.

“So we’ve gathered to demand Park resign, and we are going to keep protesting to urge for resignation until Park steps down.”

Police estimated that around 12,000 demonstrators attended the evening protest, according to the semiofficial Yonhap news agency.

Resignations ordered

On Friday, Park Geun-hye ordered the resignation of 10 of her senior secretaries – aides who coordinate policy – as political turmoil gripped the country.

Senior secretaries are essentially aides who coordinate policy between the presidency and government ministries.

Those ordered to resign include the senior secretaries to the president for policy coordination, political affairs, civil affairs, foreign affairs and national security, public relations, economic affairs, future strategy, education and culture, employment and welfare and personnel affairs, according to the presidential office’s website.

Park is expected to name new secretaries this week, according to local media.

But Kang said the problem doesn’t appear to be solvable with a quick Cabinet reshuffle.

“Can she rule, even if she gets rid of the Cabinet? The Cabinet wasn’t the problem; she was the problem,” he said.

Read: Park embroiled in leaked documents scandal

Presidential apology

Park on Tuesday admitted to sharing state documents with Choi Soon-sil, who offered “her personal opinion” on Park’s speeches before the presidential election in 2012.

Choi does not hold any public office.

In a televised presidential apology, Park said Choi looked at “some documents” for a certain period of time after Park took office but didn’t specify what they were.

“I am shocked and my heart is breaking for causing public concern,” Park said in the live telecast. “I’ve done so (shared the documents) out of pure heart so that I could carefully review (the documents).”

Abandoned computer

CNN South Korean affiliate JTBC broke the news of the scandal last week after revealing it had found an abandoned tablet device of Choi’s containing evidence she received secret documents and intervened in state affairs.

Local media and opposition parties accused Choi of abusing her relationship with Park to force big local conglomerates to donate millions of dollars to two foundations they claim she had set up.

The South Korean prosecutor’s office on Thursday established a “special investigation unit” to probe the cases.

Under the South Korean Constitution, the president is immune from criminal prosecution except for insurrection or treason.

Political fallout

The incident has hit Park’s approval ratings. Her weekly approval rate plunged to a record low of 21.1% Thursday, according to a local pollster Real Meter.

Park, whose presidency ends in 2018, had approval ratings between 30% to 50% during her first three years in office. This year, however, has been a bad one for her.

A combination of a weak economy, inadequate public communications and poor administration of state affairs, according to multiple polls, have resulted in slipping approval ratings.

Park, South Korea’s first female president, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s leader from 1961 to 1979, who was assassinated by his intelligence chief. The late Park is hailed by some as the mastermind behind the country’s current prosperity but criticized by others as a dictator who violated human rights by crushing dissenters.

CNN’s KJ Kwon, Susannah Cullinane and Max Blau contributed to this report.