Asia

S. Koreans demand president's removal on New Year's Eve

Even on New Year's Eve, large crowds of South Koreans were expected to join another rally demanding the ouster of impeached President Park Geun-hye, who's determined to restore her powers through a court trial.

Hundreds of thousands were expected to participate in the evening marches near Seoul's presidential palace and the Constitutional Court. Park's supporters are planning their own rallies in nearby streets.

The court has up to six months to decide whether Park should permanently step down over a corruption scandal or be reinstated. The judges said on Friday that Park cannot be forced to testify in the impeachment trial as it enters its argument phase next week.

Protest organizers estimate nearly 9 million people took part in anti-Park rallies nationwide in the previous nine Saturdays. The historically biggest protest movement in the country pushed lawmakers to vote for Park's impeachment on Dec. 9.

State prosecutors have accused Park of colluding with a longtime confidante to extort money and favors from the country's largest companies and allowing the friend to manipulate her administration. Park has apologized for putting faith in her jailed friend, Choi Soon-sil, but has denied any legal wrongdoing.

State prosecutors have now handed over the investigation to a special prosecution team, which has been focusing on proving bribery suspicions between Park and the Samsung Group. The business giant is suspected of sponsoring Choi in exchange for government favors.

Moon Hyung-pyo, the country's former health minister, was arrested early Saturday over allegations that he forced the National Pension Service last year to support a merger between two Samsung affiliates last year.

The deal shaved the fund's stake in one of the companies by an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in value, but allowed Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong to promote a father-to-son succession of leadership and increase corporate wealth at the group.

Investigators are also looking into allegations that Park's administration blacklisted thousands of artists for their political beliefs.