By Lee Kyung-min
The prosecution will likely step up its investigation into the unseated President Park Geun-hye over the wide-ranging influence-peddling scandal including bribery, following the Constitutional Court’s ruling that removed her from office Friday.
Park is no longer immune from prosecution, a privilege she enjoyed as a sitting president. The prosecution now has full authority as to when and how to question her.
If Park refuses to be questioned, prosecutors can execute a court-issued emergency arrest warrant to forcibly bring her to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office (SCDPO). Her confidant Choi Soon-sil was brought before an independent counsel team, though she initially refused to attend after alleging the team used abusive interrogation methods.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling will also bolster the prosecution as the ruling itself could be admitted into evidence.
Questioning Park will help the prosecution secure further evidence that will prove numerous allegations including bribery, abuse of authority, and extortion involving Choi, business leaders and Cheong Wa Dae officials, many of whom have been indicted already.
Earlier, the independent counsel team cited Park as an accomplice, and a unit under the SCDPO, which initially undertook the investigation before the team was set up, booked her as a suspect in the allegations.
The key task will be to prove the bribery allegation through which Park and Choi conspired to extort money from business groups to benefit Choi, a charge established by the independent counsel team, although its investigation produced nothing concrete as it failed to question Park.
While the team firmly believed that Park and Choi conspired to advance their agenda, it failed to pinpoint how exactly.
The counsel team concluded that Choi first devised the idea to set up two foundations _ Mir and K-Sports _ and Park asked for the money from various conglomerates.
The team indicted top executives of the largest “donor,” Samsung Group, including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong on bribery charges. Lee flatly denied all allegations.
According to the team’s indictment documents, Park had a one-on-one meeting with Lee and asked for financial support for the two Choi-controlled foundations; Lee asked for favors regarding a smooth power transfer from his bed-ridden father Lee Kun-hee; and Choi received financial support from Samsung Group.
The prosecution will also speed up its investigation into business groups including SK, Lotte and CJ, which were implicated early in the scandal but have managed to avoid investigation as the team mainly focused on Samsung.
The groups are believed to have been offered numerous personal and business favors in return for giving money to the two foundations.
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and CJ Group Chairman Lee Jay-hyun, are suspected of being granted presidential pardons in return for giving money to the foundations.
Lotte Group was allegedly granted favors in setting up duty free shops in department stores in return for giving money.
Presidential election key variable
Meanwhile, concerns linger that questioning Park might prove more difficult than expected as the country is preparing for an early presidential election, which must be held no later than May 9.
With less than two months before the election, campaigning is bound to be influenced by the investigation into the former President, as conservative voters are likely to feel sympathetic to Park if she is treated harshly by the prosecution.
It is largely expected that the speed of the prosecution’s investigation in such a limited timeframe hinges on decisions made by Prosecutor General Kim Soo-nam and Lee Young-ryeol, the SCDPO head, who is to lead the probe. The two have to choose either to set a goal of concluding the probe as early as possible or to prepare to refer it to new investigators under the next administration.
The possibility, while slim, remains that the investigation might be referred to a new team after a newly elected president names a new justice minister and prosecutor general.