The government and the ruling Saenuri Party came under heavy fire Monday amid intensifying suspicions that several close confidants of President Park Geun-hye accepted illicit political funds and used them for her election in 2012.
On the first day of the four-day interpellation session, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo denied the allegation and said he would appear before the prosecution if authorities summoned him over his alleged connection with late Keangnam chairman Sung Woan-jong.
Lee was one of the eight political heavyweights whose names were written on a memo left by Sung before his apparent suicide last Thursday.
The late businessman, who was under prosecutorial investigation over a failed energy project implemented during the Lee Myung-bak administration, claimed that he delivered the money to them.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy intensified the attack, urging the prime minister to step down from the post and raising speculation that he may attempt to control the prosecution's probe.
Lee defended himself, saying there would be no sacred ground in the investigation and that he was no exception.
Saenuri Party chairman Kim Moo-sung also refuted the NPAD's attack, saying he was willing to co-operate with the prosecution if the authorities zeroed in on campaign finances of the 2012 presidential election.
The Saenuri leader affirmed that he had been in charge of the presidential election and that there were no illegal campaign funds. He retorted that the prosecution's probe should also cover the NPAD's finances.
The burgeoning scandal also appeared to show a rift within the ruling party, with the Saenuri Party chief implying he would not hold a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee and Chief of Staff Lee Byung-kee for the time being.
The list included the names of the president's two former chiefs of staff and her current one. Kim Moo-sung was not among the list. The Saenuri leader was a campaign manager in Park's camp during the 2012 presidential election, but reportedly was not one of the pro-Park members who directly managed the party's funds and personnel organisation at the time.
"I cannot raise more suspicions by meeting with the people whose names are on the list," Kim told reporters on Monday. "I have no plans to hold (the trilateral meeting)."
The ruling party leader also dismissed the possibility that he collaborated with Cheong Wa Dae before he held an emergency news conference on Sunday urging the prosecution for a thorough probe.
"In a situation where Cheong Wa Dae's chief of staff is on the list, I wasn't able to consult on the matter with him," he said at the news conference.
Some suggested that Kim moving separately from Cheong Wa Dae reflects his plan to distance himself from the presidential office during the scandal to protect the party as well as his prominence as a presidential hopeful.
Saenuri lawmakers expressed concern that the scandal would have a negative impact on the party ahead of the April 29 by-election. The election, set to fill three vacant parliamentary seats, is seen as a barometer of public sentiment, as well as a pre-test for the 2016 general election and 2017 presidential election.
Speculations, meanwhile, are escalating that the Park camp used illicit and unregistered funds delivered by local businessmen for her election in exchange of favors.
The Park camp notified the election watchdog that it spent 47.91 billion won (S$43.48 million) for the presidential election ― 500 million won less than her rival Moon Jae-in's camp reported.
Pundits pointed out that Park's camp may have spent massive amounts of illegal funds to micromanage both small and large electoral constituencies across the country by operating unofficial organisations there.
Political parties have been widely reported to use illicit funds delivered by businessmen like Sung in order to build and manage such networks. Such practices are usually kept secret, according to local reports.
Saenuri Rep. Hong Moon-jong, Busan Mayor Seo Byung-soo and Incheon Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok ― whose names were on Sung's list ― played central roles in raising and managing funds for Park's camp.
On the memo, "200 million won" was handwritten next to Hong Moon-jong's name. Hong served as Park's campaign manager in the 2012 presidential election.