Choi denies all allegations in interview

The seats for three key witnesses are vacant at a parliamentary hearing at the Seoul corrections headquarters in Uiwang, south of Seoul, Monday. Choi Soon-sil refused to show up for the first hearing to be held at a prison facility in 19 years.
PHOTO: The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

President Park Geun-hye's jailed friend Choi Soon-sil on Monday told a group of lawmakers visiting her at the detention facility that she committed no crimes, denying all allegations surrounding her.

Choi, who is currently detained for trial on allegations that she used her ties to Park to manipulate state affairs, is the central figure in a sweeping cronyism scandal that led to the president's impeachment earlier this month.

"Choi spent most of the time expressing frustration about the situation she ended up in," said Rep. Chang Je-won of the governing Saenuri Party, one of members of the parliamentary inquiry committee who interviewed Choi at her detention cell.

The closed-door interview, which lasted more than two hours, took place, when lawmakers visited her room in the detention facility in southern Seoul.

Read Also: South Korean President Park Geun Hye to address nation over Choi-gate scandal

Including Choi, former presidential aides involved with the scandal -- An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong -- was also questioned by the lawmakers.

As the final session of their investigation into the scandal, the parliamentary panel sought to hold a hearing at the facility where Choi and the presidential aides are being held.

But none of them appeared, citing that their appearance could affect pending trial and ongoing investigation.

Instead, the lawmakers interviewed them at the detention cell.

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

  • South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is facing calls to resign over allegations she allowed a close personal friend to meddle in state affairs.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A woman attends a protest denouncing President Park Geun-hye over a recent influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

During the session, Choi denied all the allegations surrounding her, including accusations she extorted money from conglomerates and channeled it to two foundations run by her.

She also said she had never conspired with President Park for any crimes nor engaged in any wrongdoing.

The 60-year-old Choi also said she had never met former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and former Presidential Secretary of Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo, who were suspected of neglecting their duty and allegedly allowed Choi to meddle in state affairs.

Presidential aide An, meanwhile, told the lawmakers that President Park had instructed him to make the conglomerates contribute donations to the foundations run by Choi.

Read Also: Prosecution to explore next moves on S Korea president Park Geun-hye

An was in charge of coordinating government policies until he resigned over the scandal in October.

During the interview, Presidential aide Jung admitted that he had delivered classified document to Choi and that she had edited some of them.

Among the documents are presidential speeches and a list of appointee for the government posts.

Before the interview took place at the detention facilities, the lawmakers denounced their refusal to appear at the hearing, saying that their behaviour was tantamount to contempt of the National Assembly and that they would take legal action against them.

"It is like a battle between Choi and the people. If we back down and fail to see Choi, it will be a victory for Choi and defeat for the people," said Rep.

Ha Tae-keung of the Saenuri Party, a member of the bipartisan panel. "We should stay here until Choi shows up."

The lawmakers had held high expectations for the rare parliamentary inquiry being held at the prison.

A similar inquiry had taken place for the first time in 1997 when a conglomerate leader was under questioning in prison for causing the nation's worst financial crisis.

But the much-anticipated session took a hit Sunday when Choi and the presidential aides notified the lawmakers of their refusal to attend the hearing.

Read Also: The empty days of S. Korea's impeached president Park Geun-hye

There is no legal measure to enforce their attendance, except for imprisonment and fines -- relatively lenient punishments for the already imprisoned witnesses.

Outraged by the no-show of the key suspects, some panel members asserted that the National Assembly should enact a law to mandate summoned witnesses testify when upon receiving a subpoena from lawmakers.

"The reason why we can't force Choi to take the stand is that there is no legal ground to enforce it," said Rep. Ahn Min-suk of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

"We have to pass a bill to enforce their attendance when we hold a plenary session this Thursday.

Rep. Kim Kyung-jin of the third-biggest People's Party urged the lawmakers to hold another hearing for Choi and extend the working period for the bipartisan committee investigating her.

The committee was scheduled to finish its term Jan 15.

Since the committee was launched in November, the panel members have struggled to find conclusive evidence linking Choi to the president.

The lawmakers were blocked from investigating the presidential office and key witnesses refused to attend a parliamentary inquiry.

Over the past five sessions, Choi has not taken the stand and neither have former presidential aides An and Jeong.

Read Also: South Korea parliament votes to impeach President Park Geun Hye

They have given reasons ranging from physical illness to the risk of impacting ongoing investigation.

"My biggest disappointment for the inquiry is that most of key witness refused to take the stand," said Rep. Kim Sung-tae of the governing Saenuri Party, a third-term lawmaker who chairs the bipartisan committee.

But the lawmakers have managed to summon some high-profile presidential aides and business leaders suspected of colluding with Choi to seek personal gain, offering the public a rare glimpse inside the nepotism issue here.

Among them were Samsung Electronic Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo, former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and former Presidential Secretary of Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo.

Read Also: South Korea's President Park Geun Hye struggles to contain scandal ahead of protest

While most witnesses denied the allegations -- and some lawmakers were criticised for conspiring perjury and covering old ground -- they found themselves on the hot seat for new revelations to the public, which clashed with their previous testimonies.

For instance, Presidential Chief of Staff Kim's claim that he had never heard of Choi until the scandal erupted was refuted by a report from an online commenter.

He sent the lawmaker a video clip of Kim watching President Park being grilled over her connection to Choi and her father when she was a lawmaker in 2007.

"One of the achievements for the inquiry was that it saw unprecedented co-operation with civil society," said Kim Gap-soo, former head of the Korean Society Opinion Institute.

"It is truly two-way communication we have never seen before."

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