2014 Sewol ferry tragedy probed as S Korea impeachment hearing opens

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.

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.

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 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.