Special probe into Choi scandal kicks off

Special probe into Choi scandal kicks off
Choi is suspected of working with her associates, President Park and former presidential aides to meddle in state affairs, interfere in the operations of companies for personal gains and coerce conglomerates to make donations to organisations related to her, which investigators suspect were essentially bribes that might be connected to the president herself.
PHOTO: Reuters

The independent counsel looking into the corruption scandal surrounding South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her confidante Choi Soon-sil wrapped up its 20 days of preparation Tuesday, kicking off its official investigation in tandem with Park's impeachment trial.

The special team led by independent counsel Park Young-soo said it would hold a ceremony to hang up its signboard Wednesday, symbolically launching its probe into the series of accusations that has left the South Korean leader on the brink of being forced out of office.

Choi is suspected of working with her associates, President Park and former presidential aides to meddle in state affairs, interfere in the operations of companies for personal gains and coerce conglomerates to make donations to organisations related to her, which investigators suspect were essentially bribes that might be connected to the president herself.

The prosecution's biggest accusation against the president was the abuse of authority, but independent counsel Park has said that adopting such an approach "has many holes," indicating that he will look into the bribery charges.

An official from the special team told local media that the investigators may look into President Park's bank transactions related to the bribery charges.

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

Even prior to the official launch of the probe, the independent counsel team appeared to be looking into the charges as it reportedly contacted high-ranking officials from Samsung Group.

Samsung is among major Korean companies embroiled in the bribery charges, with the company suspected of providing 2.2 billion won ($18.5 million) of support to Choi's family in the form of contracts with her company.

The company is also the biggest benefactor of the Mir and K-Sports foundations, two nonprofit organisations which authorities suspect to have served as a cover for channeling public funds to Choi.

Samsung Electronics' Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of the conglomerate, has denied both the allegations and being closely acquainted with Choi.

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

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    Tens of thousands of unionized workers staged a general strike and students boycotted classes Wednesday, upping pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign.

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    Demanding the president's immediate resignation, civic groups, the workers and students vowed to hold a large-scale rally Saturday.

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    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.

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    "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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    "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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"The pre-arranged meeting (with Samsung officials) was conducted as part of preparation for the investigation. We will decide whether or not to reveal the details after the investigation begins," said an official from the investigative team.

He said that his team contacted less than 10 people related to the scandal, but declined to elaborate.

Korean media outlet Maeil Daily on Tuesday reported that the independent counsel team is set to summon Chang Choong-ki, deputy head of Samsung's Strategic Planning, as a suspect in the bribery charges.

Read also: Friend of South Korea's Park chooses to appear to "get fair trial"

Investigators refused to confirm if Chang and other Samsung officials were investigated as persons of interest or suspects.

Park's team has already barred Samsung's Vice Chairman Lee from leaving the country.

Independent counsel Park is also expected to target the president's former aides, including ex-Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and her former Senior Secretary Woo Byung-hoo.

The two are among former Cheong Wa Dae officials suspected of knowingly condoning or helping Choi with her wrongdoings.

Woo, who has vowed to finally appear at Thursday's parliamentary hearing, is suspected to have interfered in investigation related to the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, one of the nation's worst maritime disasters, which left 304 dead or missing.

It is a key factor in the allegations surrounding President Park, as she is suspected of having taken inappropriate actions during her unexplained seven-hour absence in the wake of the accident.

"We are aware of the relevant information (on Woo). But it is not appropriate to say whether or not we will investigate the matter, since it is simply a suspicion as of now," said an official from the investigative team.

Choi accused of interfering in state affairs using relationship with President

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    The woman at the centre of a corruption scandal that triggered the biggest political crisis for a generation in South Korea appeared in court Monday for a preliminary hearing in her trial on fraud charges.

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    It was the first public appearance since October for Choi Soon-Sil, who has been dubbed Korea’s “female Rasputin” for the influence she wielded over the now-impeached president, Park Geun-Hye.

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    Sporting black-rimmed glasses and a surgical mask that obscured her face, Choi, who has been in custody for the past seven weeks, was brought to the Seoul Central District Court in a special prison bus.

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    Television footage showed her handcuffed and wearing a blue-grey prison outfit with a serial number on the chest as she was taken off the bus and led into the court building by a female guard.

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    The 60-year-old faces trial on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power – largely related to huge “donations” made by conglomerates to two dubious foundations she controlled and allegedly plundered.

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    A long-time friend of Park’s, Choi is accused of using her leverage with the president to strong-arm the companies into handing over tens of millions of dollars.

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    Accusations that Park colluded with Choi formed the basis of an impeachment motion against the president that was passed by parliament earlier this month.

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    The motion is now being considered by the Constitutional Court which has up to 180 days to make a ruling on whether to endorse or reject the president’s ouster.

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    The last time Choi was seen in public was in late October when she attended a summons at the Seoul prosecutor’s office and famously lost a much-photographed Prada shoe in the media scrum outside the building.

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    Choi was not obliged to turn up for Monday’s hearing, which was largely procedural and focused on preparing the way for the trial proper.

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    “She has expressed a willingness to participate sincerely in the trial,” Lee was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

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    But her lawyer, Lee Kyung-Jae, said she had volunteered to appear.

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    Choi was criticised for refusing to attend the hearings of a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal.

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

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    Choi Soon-sil, accused of interfering in state affairs using her relationship with President Park Geun-hye, arrived at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office building in Seoul on Monday to face questioning over her alleged influence peddling.

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    Choi, a longtime confidante and shaman-like adviser to Park, had returned to Seoul on Sunday from Europe, capping a week of turmoil that led to a massive anti-government rally over the weekend.

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    Choi, a private citizen with no position in making policy, will be investigated over allegations of taking advantage of her political ties with President Park and coercing conglomerates to donate money to two foundations she controls.

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    She is also accused of seeking academic favors from professors at Ewha Womans University for her daughter Chung Yoo-ra.

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The special team has vowed to leave no stone unturned in the investigation, saying that a raid on Cheong Wa Dae itself was "not out of question."

The presidential office told local media Tuesday that it has yet to receive a request from the team, but is preparing for it.

It had refused the prosecution's earlier request to raid the office.

Litigations related to the scandal also kicked off this week.

Choi, who is at the centre of the scandal, appeared at court Wednesday and denied all allegations.

The Constitutional Court announced Tuesday that it would hold its first official preliminary for President Park's impeachment Thursday, during which the legal representatives of parliament -- which passed the motion for impeachment on Dec. 9 -- and Park will face off for the first time.

Read also: Special probe, litigation on Choi to begin

The court will also decide whether to accept the president's objection to the requests by the independent counsel and the prosecution on files related to the Choi scandal.

Park had claimed that it is illegal to ask for files related to an ongoing investigation.

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