ROK prosecutors see scandal-hit president as criminal suspect

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Protesters attend a rally calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 19, 2016. Almost one million South Koreans marched on Saturday night to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over her biggest political scandal since she took office in February 2013. (Xinhua/Yao Qilin)

South Korean prosecutors said Sunday that President Park Geun-hye is suspected of having conspired with her longtime confidante and former aides, indicating the scandal-hit president will be seen as a criminal suspect in a future investigation.

President Park has a complicity "to a significant extent" with the three criminal suspects in multiple offenses, the head of a special investigative unit in the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in charge of the case told a televised press conference to announce its interim investigation results.

It indicated the prosecution office regards the incumbent president as a criminal suspect in its investigation. The special unit chief said such interim results are based on comprehensive evidence materials collected by prosecutors.

Park, however, cannot be indicted for criminal charges as the country's constitution bans a sitting president from being criminally indicted until a single, five-year term ends.

Prosecutors plan to continue an investigation into the president, the special unit head said, as the incumbent leader can be placed under a criminal investigation if the indictment is suspended by the end of presidency.

It means the case surrounding President Park would be put on trial after her tenure ends. Park has about 15 months left in office.

The prosecution office requested a face-to-face questioning of the scandal-plagued president earlier this week, but Park's attorney delayed it to next week citing lack of preparations.

Park would be hard to avoid a direct questioning of herself in the coming week as prosecutors showed a strong will to look into the president.

The interim announcement is expected to have a huge impact on the political arena. A president has immunity from criminal indictment, but the chief executive can be impeached if he or she commits wrongdoings while in office.

Opposition parties may launch a procedure of impeaching President Park as hundreds of thousands of protesters on Saturday night demanded Park's resignation and even an immediate custody investigation into the president.

The impeachment, however, would be a tough option to select as opposition lawmakers are required to win at least 200 ayes from the 300 parliamentary seats to approve an impeachment bill. The ruling Saenuri Party has over 120 seats in the National Assembly.

Choi Soon-sil, Park's decades-long friend, was indicted by prosecutors for abuse of power, coercion, attempted coercer and attempted fraud. Ahn Jong-beom, former senior presidential secretary on policy coordination, was charged for abuse of power, coercer and attempted coercion.

Choi is suspected of asking President Park to order Ahn to pressure 53 conglomerates into donating tens of millions of U.S. dollars to two nonprofit foundations presumably controlled by Choi.

Jeong Ho-seong, former presidential secretary, was indicted for leakage of official secrets. Jeong is dubbed as one of "three knobs of a door" that leads directly into President Park as he aided her for almost two decades.

Park is suspected of ordering Jeong to bring presidential documents on confidential defense and diplomatic affairs to Choi in a bid to get recommendations from her longtime friend, who is a private citizen having no public position.


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