As a scandal threatens her government, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will make a high-stakes address to the nation Friday amid intensifying suspicion that she allowed a mysterious confidante to manipulate power from the shadows.
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It may well prove the crucial moment of Park’s presidency, determining whether she can show the contrition and sense of responsibility that South Koreans demand. She is in the fourth year of a single five-year term and was already unpopular due to the government’s response to a deadly ferry sinking, other political scandals and a perceived aloof nature.
Last week Park surprised many when she acknowledged that she had relied on her longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader and Park mentor, for help editing presidential speeches and other undefined “public relations” issues.
Anger has exploded in the days since, with media reports claiming that the influence Choi had on Park went much deeper. There are reports that Choi reviewed and made recommendations on government policy papers, helped choose presidential aides and even picked out Park’s wardrobe.
Thousands have protested, Park has fired many of her senior aides and is replacing her prime minister, and her approval rating has dropped to single digits.
Choi has been formally arrested, and opposition lawmakers have demanded that prosecutors also investigate Park. The president’s nominee for prime minister, the country’s No. 2 job, has suggested that Park can be directly investigated, despite her immunity from prosecution.
This will all be swirling around her as Park steps before the cameras on Friday. Media here report that Park’s political party expects her to apologize and perhaps accept an investigation into her actions.
Choi, 60, was arrested Thursday as Seoul Central District Court accepted a prosecutors’ request to issue a warrant citing alleged abuse of authority and fraud, according to court spokesman Shin Jae-hwan. Choi is being held in a detention center, Shin said.
In addition to the allegations Choi was a behind-the-scenes influence on the government, reports have alleged she pushed businesses to donate millions of dollars to two foundations that she controlled.
Choi is the first person formally arrested in connection with the scandal. On Wednesday night, prosecutors detained one of Park’s former senior presidential secretaries after summoning him for alleged involvement in extracting $70 million in donations. Prosecutors have 48 hours to determine whether to request an arrest warrant for Ahn Jong-beom or release him.
Much of the public frenzy over the scandal is associated with Choi’s family background. Her father led a religious cult and reportedly was a private mentor for Park, whose parents each were assassinated in the 1970s. Park’s father was a military dictator who ruled South Korea for 18 years. While acknowledging her ties to Choi last week, Park said Choi helped her “when I had difficulties” in the past.
Park has fired eight presidential secretaries and nominated three new top Cabinet officials including the prime minister in an effort to regain public confidence. Opposition parties have described Park’s personnel reshuffles as a tactic to divert attention from the scandal.
Park may survive what has become the worse patch of an already rocky four years in office. But if her choice for prime minister is rejected and she is forced to name someone chosen by the opposition, it will hamstring her authority and may end her ability to govern.
On Thursday, Park’s choice for prime minister, Kim Byong-joon, told a news conference that he thinks it’s possible to have Park investigated, though he said the procedures and methods of any probe of the head of state must be carefully handled.