OVER 1 MILLION DEMONSTRATE IN SOUTH KOREA –demanding resignation of President Park Geun-hye

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The fourth mass anti-president rally in downtown Seoul last Saturday evening saw 600,000 workers, students and senior citizens, chanting slogans demanding scandal-hit President Park Geun-hye’s immediate resignation.

The following day, Sunday, in a press conference at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in southern Seoul, Lee Young-ryeol, head of the Special Investigation Team, said: ‘We have named the President as a suspect… Based on evidence we have secured so far, we have concluded that Park is complicit in many illegal acts…’

Last Saturday’s crowd did not match the previous Saturday’s one million, the largest protest in three decades, but this time mid- and small-sized rallies were also staged in nearly 100 locations across the country, including Busan, Daegu and many other cities and towns in the southeastern part of the country. So the combined number of demonstrators throughout South Korea outstripped the previous week, according to rally organisers.

Police dispatched tens of thousands of armed riot police to control the main rally and to prevent the demonstrators from advancing beyond the limit line. President Park’s approval rating remains at a record-low single digit, data showed last Friday. According to the survey conducted by Gallup Korea, her national approval rating remained unchanged at just five per cent, with the disapproval rating standing at 90 per cent, both record levels.

Public sentiment against Park has dropped sharply in the past weeks amid the ‘influence-peddling scandal’ concerning her confidante Choi Soon-sil, who allegedly exerted power on state affairs and enjoyed unlawful favours. Amid the allegations, there have been demonstrations throughout the country calling for Park to resign.

Entertainers joined Saturday’s massive rally in central Seoul, with singer Jeon In-kwon performing at Gwanghwamun Square. Jeon, 62, a vocalist from seasoned folk rock band Deulgukhwa, sang the band’s 2004 hit ‘Don’t Worry, My Dear’ as the crowd sang along. ‘If Park Sa Mo (a conservative civic group of Park supporters) hit you or yell at you for your political stance, just walk away and ignore them,’ Jeon urged the crowd.

Singer Lee Seung-hwan said he regretted he was not on the government’s controversial blacklist of artists critical of the government and that he would do what he could to be listed. The media has revealed a blacklist of 9,473 Korean artists who have expressed opposition to government policies or supported opposition politicians.

President Park was said last Friday to be considering declaring martial law in an attempt to contain the political crisis. Dropping the bombshell last Friday morning, the leader of the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, Choo Mi-ae, said at a meeting with her party: ‘There is intelligence Park plans to declare martial law. Park seems to be determined to fight with people … This shows she is a reckless President.’

The last martial law on Korean soil was declared on May 17, 1980, when army general-turned-dictator Chun Doo-hwan was struggling to contain a violent pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju. His predecessor, Park Chung-hee, an iron-fisted dictator and the incumbent President’s father, took the measure several times to crack down on his political foes.

Under the law, the President has the right to declare martial law when it is considered necessary to maintain public order and security. And the head of state is required immediately to inform the National Assembly of the decision with details, including concrete reasons, scope of territory and what will be subject to the emergency law.

The National Assembly has the right to ask the President to lift the law and, if the latter refuses, the Assembly can start an impeachment process. The Presidential Office vehemently denied the rumour, saying it is ‘regrettable’ that the opposition leader made such an ‘irresponsible’ remark. The defence ministry also denied the allegations.

The opposition party leader claimed Park was rallying her supporters, collectively called ‘Parksamo’ (which literally means a gathering of people who love Park Geun-hye), for a clash with anti-president protesters during the large-scale rally in downtown Seoul last Saturday. She said Park is trying to influence law enforcement to disrupt a widening investigation of the scandal.

Park has resumed activities as head of state after she ‘vanished’ for eight days amid the growing scandal, commanding a reshuffle of high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism last week. If Park does not step down, we, along with other opposition parties, will take action to halt her constitutional authority,’ Choo said. We are even considering taking legal action after a mass anti-president protest on Saturday.’

The prosecution calls President Park an ‘accomplice’ to her friend Choi Soon-sil and has pledged to investigate the President as a ‘criminal suspect’ in the unfolding influence-peddling scandal. Announcing its indictments of Choi and two of Park’s key aides over the extortion of billions of won from top conglomerates, the prosecution said it specified in its indictment that Park ‘conspired’ with them in the alleged irregularities. It is the first time a prosecution has named an incumbent President as a criminal suspect.

Public attention is now focused on how the prosecution will proceed with its investigation of Park, especially after the President’s legal representative said she will not cooperate with the prosecution’s questioning. We have named the President as a suspect, believing she was an accomplice of (Choi and her aides in the scandal),’ said Lee Young-ryeol, head of the prosecution’s special investigation team, in a press conference at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in southern Seoul on Sunday.

The announcement came as the prosecution indicted Choi, former Senior Presidential Secretary for Policy Coordination An Chong-bum and former Presidential Secretary for Private Affairs Jeong Ho-seong. Based on evidence we have secured so far, we have concluded that Park is complicit in many illegal acts allegedly committed by Choi, An and Jeong,’ the prosecutor said.

Although the prosecution was unable to question Park ahead of the indictment of the three suspects, prosecutors said they collected sufficient evidence, such as entries in An’s notebooks and phone conversation recordings on Jeong’s cellphones, to conclude that Park was an accomplice.

Prosecutors said it seems Park was involved in planning the irregularities but in some cases she was actively involved in them. She allegedly made An pressure conglomerates to raise 77.4 billion won ($65.7 million) in funds to set up the Mir and K-Sports foundations, which were used for Choi’s personal benefit.

The prosecution said Park ordered An to arrange one-on-one meetings with the chiefs of seven of the nation’s top conglomerates urging them to provide ‘donations’ for the foundations. It also said Park directly requested seven billion won from Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin.

Park is also suspected of having ordered Jeong to hand over classified state files including security and diplomacy documents to Choi, who does not hold a government post. Park may face charges of abusing authority, coercion and mishandling classified state information.

Park cannot be indicted, however, because the President holds a special right that exempts her from indictment, under the Constitution. Although not able to indict her, the prosecution said it would continue its investigation into the President until an independent counsel takes over the investigation in early December. If the allegations are proven true, she may face indictment after leaving office.

However, it appears the prosecution’s questioning of Park, which was expected to take place this week, may not be carried out as planned. ‘I cannot accept even the slightest part of the prosecution’s statement that recognises the President as an accomplice,’ Park’s legal representative Yoo Yeong-ha said.

Yoo said the President will not accept the prosecution’s request for questioning and instead prepare for the investigation by the independent counsel, which will be ‘politically neutral’. Meanwhile, with charges against Park clarified, grounds for her impeachment have been secured, amid continued demands from the public and National Assembly for her to step down.