Prosecutors To Investigate South Korean President In Corruption Scandal

Nov 20, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 3:54 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to South Korea, where a leadership crisis continues and the biggest demonstrations in decades have been going on for weeks. Demonstrators are calling on President Park Geun-hye to step down due to questions about her role in a corruption and cronyism scandal. And today, prosecutors identified President Park as a criminal suspect. NPR's Elise Hu has been following the story, and she's with us now from Seoul. Elise, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Elise, what are investigators suggesting President Park did, and is there more they want to know?

HU: Right, yes. They want to know sort of the degree to which she was maybe complicit in this wide scandal. President Park has a year left in her term, and she was elected on promises of anti-corruption. But now her administration is engulfed. She's admitted to giving confidential state documents to a longtime friend and spiritual adviser. That adviser is now charged with fraud and abuse of power.

Prosecutors say she peddled her influence - and this is the friend - to enrich herself financially. That friend allegedly got nearly $70 million in donations from various South Korean conglomorates like Samsung for her own nonprofit foundations. Now prosecutors say the president was complicit in these crimes, and they want to know how much maybe she helped in those schemes.

MARTIN: And investigators will get to question the president while she's in office. How unusual is that? I'm told that this is unprecedented.

HU: It is unprecedented. They announced she'll be questioned while she's in office, has not happened for a Korean head of state before. Park's lawyer has been delaying questioning, saying he needs more time to prepare. And the president's spokesman says the investigation isn't fair. These allegations aren't proven.

But even if prosecutors do decide they want to charge the president eventually, she does has immunity from criminal prosecution while she's in office. She wouldn't be able to get indicted until after her term is over, which is a little more than a year out from now.

MARTIN: Has the president responded to the charges at all, other than to apologize and reshuffling her cabinet?

HU: She hasn't spoken to potential charges yet just because it happened Sunday - today. But she has tried to get the country to focus on other things (laughter) instead, you know, basically saying, I really want to get back to the work of this office. Koreans aren't having any of that so far.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. How are Koreans responding to all of this?

HU: They're incredibly baffled by this. They're angry about it, and they want her out of office as soon as possible. We've seen four weeks of protests now where hundreds of thousands of Koreans are out on the streets of central Seoul. And also out on the streets of other cities around South Korea calling for Park Geun-hye to resign. They are holding candlelight vigils. There's people who are actually out every day but in smaller groups. And these are Koreans of all ages in backgrounds. At these protests you'll see a lot of young families out with their toddlers. You'll see retirees, students in college. So Park's approval number, which sort of shows how wide a swath of the population is angry about this - that approval number's hit 5 percent for two weeks in a row. That's the lowest in Korean presidential history. And yet, despite all these protests, Park herself is showing no signs of going anywhere.

MARTIN: Elise, before we let you go - I mean, we only have a few seconds left, is it possible the decision may be taken out of her hands? Is it possible that she could be removed?

HU: It is possible to impeach the president. But it would take a long time. And again, there's only a year left.

MARTIN: Elise Hu is our correspondent in Seoul. Elise, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.