Lawmakers grill Park's security chief on president's 'missing 7 hours' 

PHOTO: AFP

Lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties on Wednesday scrutinized President Park Geun-hye's handling of the rescue operation during the Sewol ferry disaster, questioning presidential aides about what the president was doing amid the nation's worst maritime disaster in 2014.

In the third parliamentary inquiry session on a scandal that led to Park's impeachment last week, the bipartisan panel of parliamentarians grilled former chief of the Presidential National Security Office, Kim Jang-soo, repeatedly about how he reported to Park about the situation and whether the president was briefed in real time.

"I had my aide send the report to the presidential office and Park's residence.

I didn't check where she was," said Kim, acknowledging he was unware of the president's location on April 16, 2014, when the ferry sank with over 300 believed to be trapped inside.

Kim said his aide told him the president "appeared to be not at her office."

Cheong Wa Dae later said the president was at her private residence all day long and attended to her duties as usual.

Kim was one of the 16 witnesses in attendance during the inquiry into the influence-peddling scandal involving the president's confidante Choi Soon-sil.

An additional three presidential aides were summoned, but did not appear.

On the day of the Sewol ferry tragedy, the president was first told about the sinking at 10 a.m. and showed up at the government's rescue headquarters about seven hours later.

While many question what Park was up to during the seven hours, suspecting a possible neglect of duty, Cheong Wa Dae has repeatedly insisted that the president was briefed about the situation via phone and documents.

It said the president was at her private residence all day, except for the trip to the rescue centre.

Given there was no face-to-face briefing during the seven hours, rumours still abound over what she really was doing. Some suggested that she may have undergone cosmetic or medical surgery.

The only confirmed detail was that Park spent time having her hair done by a professional after she instructed at 3 p.m. for her staff to arrange her visit to the rescue centre.

How much time she spent having her hair done is another topic of controversy, with Cheong Wa Dae insisting that it took 20 minutes while media outlet have suggested that it took more than 90 minutes.

"Even if we believed that Park spent only 20 minutes on her hair as Cheong Wa Dae suggested, she should have been at the rescue headquarter by 4 p.m.," said Rep.

Ha Tae-kyun of the president's governing Saenuri Party, criticising Park for wasting time crucial to following up on the rescue mission.

When the president appeared at the rescue centre at 5:15 p.m., Park displayed her lack of awareness about the dire situation, asking the staff, "Why is it hard to find those students? I heard they all had life vests on," when the ship was almost under water.

"I don't want to imagine that the president arrived at the rescue centre (at 5:15 p.m.) because she had to fix her hair," said Kim, responding to a question from lawmaker Ha.

"Actually, I don't want to think that way and I have never thought about it."

When asked by the lawmakers why he had not tried to have face-to-face meetings with the president during the seven hours, Kim said that he had to keep his position in a situation room to monitor the developments.

"Thing were so chaotic and complicated. I had to stay at the situation room. It was not a situation where the president could come to the room," Kim said.

Lawmakers also spent time investigating the allegation the president received medical treatment from civilian doctors known to have regularly treated Choi, a civilian who had neither an official tittle nor security clearance.

Kim Sang-man and Kim Young-jae, doctors who have run their own clinics but have no access to the presidential office like Choi, admitted that they have offered the president medical treatment on several occasions since Park became president in 2012.

But the doctors denied that they did treated Park on the day when the ferry Sewol sank.

"I have never entered Cheong Wa Dae on April 16, 2014. I was at my hospital that day to treat my patients.

I can offer records to prove it," said Dr. Kim Sang-man, who worked at Chaum Clinic where Choi was a regular customer.

Kim is suspected of prescribing vitamin shots to Park under Choi's name.

Kim admitted he treated the president on 12 occasions at Chaum Clinic or at the presidential office.

Kim even tested Park's blood under Choi's name at his clinic without the knowledge of the official presidential medical staff.

Plastic Surgeon Kim Joung-jae, who has been rumored to use propofol for surgery on Park, also said that he never treated Park during the day of the ferry sinking, adding that he was playing golf after performing surgery on his mother-in-law.

They were appointed as "advisory doctors" for Park without the approval of the official presidential doctors, which violates established practice.

Kim Sang-man admitted that he had one-on-one treatment sessions with the president before Seo Chang-suk, the former presidential doctor, took office in September 2014

Cheong Wa Dae's Medical Director Kim Won-ho, who oversaw health issues relating to Park and presidential officials, told the lawmakers that even though "it was not desirable" for the president to be treated by outside doctors, the president "can choose" how she wants herself to be treated.

Read Also: South Korea prosecutors charge two senior ex-Park officials: Media 

Tens of thousands of South Koreans stage protest in Seoul calling for President Park Geun Hye to resign

  • Tens of thousands of unionized workers staged a general strike and students boycotted classes Wednesday, upping pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign.
  • Demanding the president's immediate resignation, civic groups, the workers and students vowed to hold a large-scale rally Saturday.
  • An association of 500 civic groups declared Wednesday as "a day of citizens' resistance," staging rallies in front of City Hall in central Seoul and in major cities from 3 p.m. More universities also joined a boycott of classes to ramp up pressure on Park.
  • "Ignoring people's calls for an immediate resignation, Park shifted responsibility (for her resignation) to the parliament," Choi Jong-jin, acting chief of the nation's second-largest umbrella labour union KCTU, said during the rally in central Seoul.
  • Some 220,000 workers from the public transport, public service, construction and education industries under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions joined the partial strike by taking a day off or leaving work early.
  • Students from 17 universities, including Sookmyung Women's University, Sogang University and Korea University, began to boycott their classes Friday. A few more schools including Seoul National University and Kookmin University joined the boycott Wednesday. Incheon University, Inha University and Pusan National University will join the move from Thursday.
  • Starting at 4 p.m., some 20,000 laborers marched across central Seoul and stopped at the headquarters of major conglomerates including Samsung, SK, Lotte, GS and Hanhwa, which are suspected of contributing money to the K-Sports and Mir foundations set up and run by Park's close confidante Choi Soon-sil.
  • The rally organizers initially planned to march to a fountain only 100 meters away from the presidential office, but the police blocked their plan, citing traffic disruption.
  • The sixth anti-Park rally will be held Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square. As with last Saturday's rally, organizers said some 100,000 participants will completely surround the presidential office from several locations starting from 4 pm.
  • Tens of thousands of South Koreans protested in central Seoul on Saturday (Nov 5) in one the largest demonstrations in the country's capital for years, calling on embattled President Park Geun Hye to resign over a growing influence-peddling scandal.
  • Roughly 43,000 people were at the candle-lit rally early on Saturday (Nov 5) evening, according to police. Organisers said a growing crowd of 100,000 had assembled, making the protest one of the biggest since demonstrations in 2008 against US beef imports.
  • Park Geun Hye has been rocked by a scandal involving an old friend who is alleged to have used her closeness to the president to meddle in state affairs. Ms Park has pledged to cooperate with prosecutors in an investigation.
  • Koreans have been angered by the revelations and say Ms Park, the latest South Korean leader to be embroiled in a scandal involving family or friends, has betrayed public trust and mismanaged her government.
  • Her approval rating has slipped to just 5 per cent according to a Gallup poll released on Friday (Nov 4), the lowest number for a South Korean president since such polling began in 1988.
  • Police said they had deployed 17,600 officers and 220 units including buses and mobile barriers to Saturday's protest. Police in riot gear lined the alleys and streets leading to the presidential Blue House as the main body of the demonstration began the march through central Seoul.
  • Ms Park has sacked many of her immediate advisers over the crisis. A former aide, Jeong Ho Seong, was arrested on Thursday (Nov 3) on suspicion of leaking classified information, a prosecution official told Reuters.
  • No South Korean president has ever failed to finish their five-year term, but Ms Park has faced growing pressure from the public and political opponents to quit.
  • "Even though we're just students, we feel like we can't put up with this unreasonable society anymore so we're participating in this protest with like-minded friends," said Mr Byun Woo Hyuk, an 18-year-old high school student holding a banner calling on the president to resign.
 

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