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SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean officials Friday turned away prosecutors trying to search the president's mountainside compound, a confrontation that highlights the high stakes at play as investigators look into a scandal that knocked President Park Geun-hye from power.
Prosecutors want to question Park and search her presidential Blue House for more information about events that led to her impeachment in December. Park has said she's willing to be questioned. But her office opposes any search and maintains that a law blocks searches in areas with military and other official secrets.
On Friday, a team of 20 prosecutors and investigators attempted to enter the Blue House in downtown Seoul after receiving a court-issued search warrant. But the Blue House didn't let them in, saying it can only hand over documents to prosecutors, not give them entrance.
Prosecutors expressed regret and said they would raise the issue with Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who became government caretaker after Park's presidential powers were suspended. There was no immediate response from Hwang, who works in a government building near the Blue House.
After several hours outside the Blue House compound, the prosecution team members withdrew. Local television stations earlier showed them waiting inside cars at a parking lot within the Blue House compound.
The search warrant is valid until Feb. 28, but it is not clear if prosecutors will try to search the Blue House again. Prosecution spokesman Lee Kyu-chul told reporters earlier Friday that his office was reviewing whether to receive Blue House documents.
It was not immediately clear whether the Blue House's decision to ignore the court's search warrant was legal.
The law cited by the Blue House prohibits searches of areas with state secrets without the approval of those in charge of those areas. But the law still says that those in charge must approve searches unless the searches undermine national interests.
The Blue House used this law to reject a previous search attempt by prosecutors, but legal experts say its rejection must be strictly applied to searches of offices handling confidential information, not the whole compound.
Prosecutors said they wanted to search the offices of the presidential secretaries for civil and economic affairs. The Blue House, when it objected to the searches, did not explain why it thinks they would undermine national interests, according to Lee, the prosecution spokesman.
In October, state prosecutors tried to search the Blue House but ended up receiving Blue House documents outside the compound, before they handed those over to a team led by independent counsel Park Young-soo.
Park faces allegations that she let her confidante Choi Soon-sil manipulate government affairs and extort money from businesses, though Choi has never had any government post. Choi and several of Park's presidential advisers have been arrested on related charges.
The Constitutional Court is holding a trial to decide whether to formally unseat Park or restore her power. If Park is forced out, South Korea would hold an election to choose her successor within two months of the move.