S Korea political crisis escalates as Samsung chief awaits fate

S Korea political crisis escalates as Samsung chief awaits fate
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jay Y. Lee is surrounded by media as he leaves the office of the independent counsel in Seoul
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - South Korean prosecutors will decide on Monday whether the head of Samsung Group, the country's biggest conglomerate, should be arrested as an influence-peddling scandal engulfing impeached President Park Geun-hye's government gained momentum.

Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was held overnight on Thursday for questioning, and prosecutors were also gunning on Monday for another key figure in investigations that have led through the corridors of power and big business.

National Pension Service (NPS) chairman Moon Hyung-pyo was indicted on charges of abuse of power and giving false testimony, while President Park's friend and the woman at the centre of the scandal, Choi Soon-sil, appeared before the Constitutional Court. "Further details (on Moon) will be explained at a briefing,"the special prosecutors' team said in a text message.

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Moon was arrested in December after acknowledging ordering the world's third-largest pension fund to support the $8 billion merger in 2015 of two Samsung affiliates while he was head of the health ministry, which oversees the NPS.

South Korea has been gripped by political crisis for months, with Park impeached in December.

If the motion is upheld by the Constitutional Court, an election would be held in two months, with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expected to be a candidate.

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Former opposition party leader Moon Jae-in maintained his lead in a opinion poll for presidential favourites, while Ban tightened the gap in second place, a Realmeter survey commissioned by the Maeil Business Newspaper showed on Monday.

The special prosecutors' office had said it would make a decision on Samsung's Lee on Sunday, but needed more time to deliberate all factors, including the potential economic impact.

Park remains in office but has been stripped of her powers while the Constitutional Court decides whether to make her the country's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office.

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Choi is accused of colluding with Park to pressure big businesses, including Samsung, to contribute to non-profit foundations backing the president's initiatives. Choi, in detention and on trial on charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud, has denied wrongdoing.

Park has also denied wrongdoing, although she has apologised for exercising poor judgment in her ties with Choi.

Samsung has acknowledged providing funds to the three institutions but has repeatedly denied accusations of lobbying to push through the merger.

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