S. Korea president faces test of her political life in trial
SEOUL, South Korea – A lawyer for South Korea's disgraced president has compared her impeachment to the deaths of Jesus Christ and the ancient Greek thinker Socrates.
While that may be over the top, the impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye is of critical importance for the world's 11th largest economy as the government tries to boost jobs, restore confidence among furious citizens and navigate relations with a new administration in its close ally, the United States, as well as its always belligerent archrival, nuclear-armed North Korea.
A caretaker prime minister now tries to steer the country while the Constitutional Court decides whether Park — who spends her days, powerless, in the presidential palace — should permanently step down over a corruption scandal or be reinstated.
The ruling could take months, but a critical point comes Tuesday when the court likely hears from Park's jailed confidante Choi (pronounced Chwey) Soon-sil, who the president allegedly helped extort money and favors from companies and allowed to interfere with government affairs.
A look at the cast of characters, the issues and how things in this momentous trial might pan out:
The prosecution at the trial, the second of its kind in South Korean history, is led by the same lawmakers who voted to impeach Park last month after weeks of massive street demonstrations by millions of furious but peaceful protesters.
Lead prosecutor Kweon (pronounced Gwon) Seong Dong, chairman of legislature's Judiciary Committee who only recently left Park's conservative ruling party, is working with opposition lawmakers who authored Park's impeachment motion and with more than a dozen lawyers.
Park's defense team includes Seo (pronounced Suh) Seok-gu, a right-wing lawyer who compared Park to Jesus and who this week offered a plea to "God who freed us from Japanese colonial rule and defended us from North Korea to protect the Constitutional Court and give the people the gospel of hope."
Removing Park from office would require the support of at least six of the court's nine justices. If Park is booted, the country must hold a presidential election within 60 days.
Park is accused of extortion, bribery, abusing her power and leaking government secrets. Her alleged crimes, lawmakers said, damaged the country's democracy and market economy.
Park allegedly conspired with Choi, who had no official role in government, and Park's former senior secretary Ahn Jong-beom to pressure some of the country's largest companies in 2015 into giving a combined $65 million to two foundations that Choi controlled. Park is also accused of ordering Ahn to pressure companies into giving lucrative deals to advertisement and sports management firms run by Choi.
The companies couldn't refuse Park's demands because they feared difficulties getting government approval for projects and being targeted in tax investigations, the charges said. Park is also accused of soliciting bribes; the companies, some of which are also being investigated, allegedly gave to Choi's foundations with the expectation of government favors.
The court will also hear accusations that Park conspired to install Choi's associates in government, restricted media reporting and bungled the response to a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 mostly students.
Tensions will be high when Choi, the focus of intense media scrutiny, appears in court Tuesday as a witness.
Also appearing that day will be Ahn and Jung Ho-sung, another former presidential aide charged of passing hundreds of government documents, including dozens of classified ones, to Choi.
The court will also review lawmakers' request for Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong and Park's former chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, who is suspected of ordering the blacklisting of thousands of artists deemed unfriendly to Park, to appear as witnesses.
Park is suspected of instructing government officials to help a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates go through, and then had the officials allegedly press Samsung to provide Choi with money and favors. The deal allowed Lee, the Samsung heir, to promote a father-to-son succession of power and corporate wealth.
Park, eager to avoid a public grilling, cannot be forced to testify, and her lawyers say there's no possibility she'll appear.
Although she has publicly denied the accusations, Park has yet to be questioned directly by investigators, and her lawyers have little to gain by allowing her to testify in court, according to some legal experts.
Park's lawyers may want to stall because Park's popularity is so low now that they might feel they will get a better ruling the longer the case takes. She was originally set to finish her single five-year term in February 2018.
Park's lawyers are likely to demand that the prosecution come up with more evidence to back their charges. That could mean spending more time finding documents and more witnesses.
The court is also considering a request by Park's lawyers for reports from companies about whether they were really forced into sponsoring foundations controlled by Choi.
Park's team said that the court must independently verify facts because the investigation by prosecutors can't be trusted. Lawmakers dismissed the request as a stalling tactic that unfairly pressures the companies.
THE END GAME
It's unclear how quickly the court will rule.
The last time South Korean lawmakers voted to impeach a president, in 2004, the court reinstated late liberal President Roh (pronounced Noh) Moo-hyun after two months, saying allegations of minor election law violations and incompetence weren't enough to justify his unseating.
The accusations against Park are much graver, the case more complicated, and some believe it will take the court longer to rule.
While the Constitutional Court Law says the court must rule on cases within six months — which would mean before June 6 — the time limit is often ignored.
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