SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean prosecutors on Sunday said they believe President Park Geun-hye conspired in criminal activities of a secretive confidante who allegedly manipulated government affairs and exploited her presidential ties to amass an illicit fortune — a damning revelation that may convince opposition parties to push for her impeachment.
Prosecutors are planning to soon question Park, who has immunity but can be investigated, said Lee Young-ryeol, chief prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.
Prosecutors on Sunday formally charged Park's longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, on suspicion of interfering with state affairs and bullying companies into giving tens of millions of dollars to foundations and businesses she controlled.
In a televised news conference, Lee said that based on the evidence, "the president was collusively involved in a considerable part of the criminal activities by suspects Choi Soon-sil, Ahn Jong-beom and Jung Ho-sung." He was referring to two presidential aides who also were formally charged Sunday for allegedly helping Choi.
"However, because of the president's impunity from prosecution stated in Article 84 of the constitution, we cannot indict the president. The special investigation headquarters will continue to push for an investigation of the president based on this judgment," Lee said.
Park's office had no immediate comment Sunday. The country's largest opposition party, the Minjoo, issued a statement calling for Park to immediately resigns, saying that a "criminal suspect" should not be allowed to lead the country.
"If President Park continues to refuse (to resign), the people's demand for impeachment will grow. President Park should not throw country into larger confusion and (should) make a decision to voluntarily step down," the party said. It questioned whether the prosecution was investigating the allegations thoroughly enough, and asked why bribery charges haven't been pursued against the suspects.
Park is facing growing calls to resign over the scandal critics say has undermined the country's democracy. Although emboldened by a wave of mass protests, opposition parties have so far refrained from seriously pushing for Park's impeachment over fears of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively impacting next year's presidential election.
However, there are growing voices within the opposition saying that an impeachment attempt is inevitable because it's unlikely Park will resign and give up her immunity.
Ahn Jong-beom, Park's former senior secretary for policy coordination, was charged with abuse of authority, coercion and attempted coercion over allegations that he pressured companies into making large donations to foundations and companies Choi controlled.
Jung Ho-sung, the other former aide who was indicted, was accused of passing on classified presidential documents to Choi, including information on ministerial candidates.
The indictments were made based on evidence such as presidential documents, Ahn's personal notes, and Jung's cellphone records, and also what was confirmed in the questioning of multiple former government officials and the chairmen of nine large companies who had held private meetings with the president, Lee said.
According to Lee, Choi and Ahn conspired to pressure companies into giving a combined 77.4 billion won ($65.5 million) to the Mir and K-Sports foundations, two nonprofits that were under Choi's control. The companies couldn't refuse because they feared doing so would result in business disadvantages, such as difficulties in gaining government approval for projects or being targeted in tax investigations, Lee said.
Additionally, Choi and Ahn pressured the Lotte Group into giving 7 billion won ($5.9 million) to the K Sports foundation to finance the construction of a sports facility in the city of Hanam, which was to be operated by The Blue K, a company established by Choi, Lee said.
Auto giant Hyundai and telecommunications company KT were forced to contract 13 billion won ($11 million) worth of their advertisements to Playground, an ad agency virtually run by Choi, Lee said. Hyundai was also forced to buy 1.1 billion won ($931,000) worth of supplies from an auto parts maker run by Choi's friend. Ahn and Choi also tried but failed to take over the shares of an advertisement company previously owned by steelmaker POSCO, Lee said.
Prosecutors are also seeking to indict Cha Eun-taek, a famous music video director who allegedly used his close relationship with Choi to win lucrative government culture projects, and former vice sports minister Kim Chong, suspected of providing business favors to sports organizations controlled by Choi.
Kim is also under suspicion of influencing the ministry's decision to financially support a sports foundation run by Choi's niece, who prosecutors detained on Friday.
On Saturday, police said about 170,000 people turned out for the latest anti-Park protest in streets near City Hall and a boulevard fronting an old palace gate in Seoul.
Demonstrators also marched in streets near the presidential offices, carrying candles and illuminating cellphones, and shouting "Park Geun-hye step down" and "Arrest Park Geun-hye."
Park's term lasts until Feb. 24, 2018. If she steps down before the presidential vote on Dec. 20, 2017, an election must be held within 60 days.