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SEOUL, South Korea – A South Korean special prosecutor on Saturday summoned a jailed friend of impeached President Park Geun-hye, who allegedly exploited her connections with Park to extort money and favors from the country's largest companies and manipulate government affairs.
In handcuffs, white prison clothes and a surgical mask, Choi Soon-sil was escorted into a southern Seoul office where investigators have been widening their inquiry into a scandal. Millions of protesters have taken to the streets before the country's opposition-controlled parliament on Dec. 9 voted to impeach Park. An official from the investigation team said without elaborating that Choi will be questioned further.
Choi's summons came as crowds began to gather near the presidential palace to call for Park's permanent removal, extending the historically biggest protest movement in the country to Christmas Eve. Organizers expected the rally to be festive, but there was tension as Park's conservative supporters also planned to gather in nearby streets.
The Constitutional Court has up to six months to decide whether Park should permanently step down or be reinstated. Her presidential powers are suspended until then, with the prime minister serving as the government caretaker.
State prosecutors have accused Park of colluding with Choi as she allegedly amassed an illicit fortune and held extraordinary sway over government decisions, such as choosing Cabinet ministers.
They have now handed over their investigation to special prosecutor Park Young-soo, whose team earlier on Saturday summoned the country's former vice sports minister Kim Chong.
Kim is suspected of helping Choi wrest money and favors from Samsung, the country's largest business group. He also allegedly swung lucrative business deals to sports organizations that Choi controlled and influenced the ministry's decision to financially support a winter sports group run by Choi's niece, who has also been arrested.
Samsung is under suspicion that it sponsored Choi to win government backing for a controversial merger deal between two affiliates last year that helped promote a father-to-son transfer of leadership and corporate wealth at the group.
Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, son of ailing group chairman Lee Kun-hee, has apologized over the use of corporate funds to buy a horse for Choi's daughter, Yoora Chung, an equestrian athlete, but denied that Samsung sought favors from Choi or Park's administration.
Investigators are now trying to find and detain Chung and have requested the help of prosecutors in Germany, where she is believed to be staying. On Wednesday, they raided South Korea's National Pension Service, which supported the merger between the two Samsung affiliates even though the fund's stake in one of the companies lost an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in value.
Samsung is also one of the country's major companies that gave a combined 77.4 billion won ($65 million) to two non-profit foundations Choi allegedly controlled and abused to expand her personal wealth.