Friend of South Korea's Park denies charges as trial begins

Friend of South Korea's Park denies charges as trial begins
Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye who is at the center of the South Korean political scandal involving Park, arrives for her first court hearing in Seoul.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - A friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the centre of a corruption scandal that led to Park's impeachment in parliament denied charges of fraud and abuse of power on Monday on the first day of her trial.

The friend, Choi Soon-sil, 60, is charged with pressuring big businesses to pay money to foundations that backed Park's policy initiatives.

Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice, although she has immunity from prosecution while in office.

Park's powers have been suspended since the Dec. 9 vote by parliament to impeach her, giving the Constitutional Court up to 180 days to uphold or overturn the decision.

In a brief court hearing, Choi denied all charges brought against her by prosecutors. Her lawyer argued that Choi did not collude with Park or other defendants in the case, and also denied the fraud charge. "I need to clarify the facts now," Choi was quoted as telling the court by Yonhap News Agency.

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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Two former presidential aides who have been indicted along with Choi did not attend the hearing, but their lawyers told the court that they had been following Park's orders.

Choi also said she did not want a jury trial. South Korean courts normally hold criminal trials presided over by a panel of judges, who deliver a verdict and sentence, while defendants in select cases are given the choice of a jury trial.

Her lead lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, rejected the charge that Choi colluded with Park and one of the former aides to the president, An Chong-bum, to exert pressure on various "chaebol"conglomerates. "We stressed that there was no collusion between Choi and An Chong-bum and the president, and we look forward to having an intense examination over this point," Lee told reporters after the hearing.

Choi, who had not appeared in public since arriving at a prosecutors' office on Oct. 31, was led into court by two correctional officers, her head down, wearing a bulky grey prison suit with a number across the chest.

She spoke softly and was barely audible in a brief comment to the court. The next hearing is set for Dec. 29.

MASTERMIND?

Park, 64, whose father, Park Chung-hee, ruled the country for 18 years after seizing power in a 1961 coup, has described Choi as a friend she had turned to at difficult times and apologised for carelessness in her ties with her.

Park has denied any legal wrongdoing.

Park's lawyers arguing against the impeachment vote in an opinion filed at the Constitutional Court have said the case had no legal basis and was also procedurally flawed, and that the impeachment was based largely on unproven suspicion and charges that were now under investigation and trial. "This goes against the constitutional principle of presumption of innocence," the lawyers said in the opinion seen by Reuters on Monday.

Prosecutors have portrayed Choi as the mastermind in several schemes to gain financial benefit from companies she controlled.

Choi's friendship with Park dates to the time when Park served as acting first lady after her mother was killed in 1974 by an assassin who had intended to kill her father. Her father was shot dead five years later by his disgruntled spy chief.

Choi is the daughter of a religious figure named Choi Tae-min, who was referred to in a U.S. diplomatic cable as the"Korean Rasputin" for his perceived influence over Park.

The intensely private Park was long criticised for relying on a group of advisers who closely guarded access to her.

Choi Soon-sil has been portrayed in media as having inherited her father's influence over Park, who has never married and is estranged from her siblings.

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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