2014 Sewol ferry tragedy probed as S Korea impeachment hearing opens

2014 Sewol ferry tragedy probed as S Korea impeachment hearing opens
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - South Korea's scandal-hit president was asked to clarify the mystery surrounding her whereabouts at the time of a disastrous 2014 ferry sinking Thursday as the Constitutional Court opened her impeachment hearing.

Parliament voted to impeach Park Geun-Hye earlier this month over a corruption scandal in which she allegedly colluded with a friend to strong-arm donations from large conglomerates to two dubious foundations.

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She is also accused of ordering aides to leak state documents to Choi Soon-Sil, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in state affairs including the appointment of top officials.

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The case is now being considered by the Constitutional Court which has 180 days to rule on the validity of the impeachment.

Justice Lee Jin-Sung rejected an apparent attempt by Park's lawyers to stall the hearing, instead launching into questions over where she was in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster that left more than 300 people dead.

"I'm sure the president herself will know best what she did on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster," Lee said. "We request that she provide all details."

Park's response to the tragedy was one of the issues cited when parliament voted for her impeachment and Park faces growing pressure to explain what she was doing on the day.

Questions have been raised over Park's activities during a seven-hour period after she was initially informed of the sinking and before her first appearance at an official meeting to discuss the government's response.

Unconfirmed media reports have suggested a wide range of theories about Park's whereabouts, including a romantic liaison, participation in a shamanistic ritual, cosmetic surgery or, most recently, a 90-minute haircut.

Choi, who is said to have had a "Rasputin-like" influence over the president, pleaded not guilty to all charges when her trial opened this week.

The ‘female Rasputin’ at centre of S Korean President Park Geun-Hye political scandal

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    South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is facing calls to resign over allegations she allowed a close personal friend to meddle in state affairs.

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    People watch a television news report showing South Korean President Park Geun-Hye making a public apology, at a railway station in Seoul on October 25, 2016.

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    South Korean President Park Geun-hye bows after releasing a statement of apology to the public during a news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, October 25, 2016.

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    South Korea’s presidential office said on Saturday it was cooperating with prosecutors’investigation into key aides to President Park Geun-hye over allegations an old friend of hers enjoyed inappropriate influence over her.

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    Prosecutors’ request for presidential Blue House documents came ahead of an evening protest expected to draw thousands in central Seoul calling for Park’s resignation amid a scandal that has cast her presidency into crisis.

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    A woman attends a protest denouncing President Park Geun-hye over a recent influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul

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    Protestors hang a caricature showing South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (L) and her confidante Choi Soon-Sil (C), on a board during a rally denouncing a scandal over President Park's aide in Seoul on October 27, 2016.

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    South Korean prosecutors on October 27 set up a high-powered "task-force" to probe a widening scandal involving alleged influence-peddling by a close confidante of President Park Geun-Hye. Choi Soon-Sil, an enigmatic woman with no government position, was already part of an investigation into allegations that she used her relationship with the president to strong-arm conglomerates into multi-million dollar donations to two non-profit foundations.

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    Park’s office said late on Friday she had ordered her senior secretaries to tender their resignations, and she will reshuffle the office in the near future. Her chief of staff separately offered to resign earlier, the office said.

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    The deepening crisis over allegations that Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, enjoyed inappropriate influence over her has sent her public support to an all-time low, with more than 40 percent in an opinion poll saying Park should resign or be impeached.

The court also rejected a request from Park's defence team to suspend its deliberations until the prosecution of Choi and other defendants runs its course.

Massive demonstrations have been taking place in Seoul and other cities every Saturday for the past two months, with protestors calling for Park's immediate departure from office.

But Park has remained defiant, declaring she will "calmly" wait until the conservative-leaning Constitutional Court reaches a decision.

At least six members of the nine-judge panel are needed to approve the motion and Park is apparently pinning hopes on the court's conservative bent.

If the justices confirm impeachment, Park will be permanently removed and elections must be held within 60 days - meaning a ballot could be held as early as late March.

S Korea President Park Geun-hye may have undergone various anti-aging medical procedures

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