World

Gestures tell of friendship that toppled S. Korea president

A steely gaze from one woman. A slight, apologetic bow from another. On the first day of the biggest trial in South Korea in years, two small gestures reflect the state of a friendship that toppled a president.

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was a study in determination as she strode into a packed Seoul courtroom Tuesday to begin a trial that could send her to prison for life if convicted on the most serious charges.

She sat down and fixed her hard gaze on a spot in front of her. Park's face betrayed no hint of whatever emotions roiled within, even as flashes exploded and a horde of cameras zoomed in for extreme close-ups that were piped to millions of curious South Koreans.

Moments later, a confidante linked to Park for four decades — and a woman whom prosecutors say Park colluded with to bribe, extort and leak government secrets — entered the courtroom.

Choi Soon-sil ducked her head, almost shyly, in Park's direction before walking to the defendants' table.

Only one person separated them, yet they exchanged no words while the cameras rolled. As Choi's eyes darted around the courtroom, Park's stare did not waver.

They then had a chance to address the court. Park answered in calm, measured tones when asked for her address and occupation. Choi sobbed as she answered the basic questions.

Park then offered a firm, short denial of guilt. Choi called herself a sinner, claimed Park had been framed in a conspiracy and declared her wish that the trial "truly frees former President Park of fault and lets her be remembered as a president who lived a life devoted to her country."

This will play well with Park's hardcore conservative base, which sees her as having sacrificed her private life to focus on the country after her mother and then her dictator father were killed in separate assassinations.

About 150 of her supporters gathered outside the court, weeping and screaming with outrage as Park's prison bus passed by.

For many other South Koreans, including the millions who protested as news of Choi and Park's alleged collusion broke late last year, the small gestures — of defiance from Park and anguish from Choi — will say more than any words can.