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SEOUL, South Korea – Ahead of an impeachment vote later this week, lawmakers took turns grilling a K-pop music director, a fashion designer and nearly a dozen others said to be linked to a woman at the heart of a scandal that threatens to bring down South Korea's president.
Missing, however, was the woman, the jailed confidante of President Park Geun-hye, who cited a panic disorder for her refusal to attend the hearing Wednesday, the latest step in what appears to be the final days in power for Park.
Prosecutors say Park, who faces an impeachment vote Friday, let her friend of 40 years, Choi Soon-sil, control government affairs and extort companies. Park denies it.
On live TV, lawmakers in a hearing room jammed with media sent away a squad of about 20 security officers with orders that Choi and 10 other witnesses attend the hearing.
A niece of Choi later appeared at the hearing but others refused to attend, National Assembly officials said. They could face jail or fines, but witnesses who have refused to attend past hearings have mostly been fined.
Choi is being held at a detention center near Seoul. She and two of Park's former presidential advisers have been indicted. One of the two ex-aides allegedly pressured big companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi, while the other is accused of passing confidential government documents to Choi. The two men, both jailed at another detention center, also refused to testify Wednesday.
Thirteen people caught up in the scandal were at the hearing, including two of Choi's former associates and former presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon. Choi's niece, Chang Si-ho, ran a sports foundation that allegedly received illicit state financial support and other favors.
With key witnesses absent, lawmakers questioned Kim about a 2014 ferry disaster that has long dogged Park's government because of what's widely believed to have been a botched rescue effort. The sinking killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a field trip.
Opposition lawmaker Kim Kyung-jin grilled Kim about an allegation that he told junior presidential secretaries that efforts to recover bodies from the wreckage should be stopped because it would be a burden to the government. The lawmaker cited what he called a memo left by a late Park secretary. Kim Ki-choon denied making such an instruction, causing Kim Kyung-jin to erupt.
"It will be hard for you go to heaven after you die. You need a lot of self-reflection," the lawmaker said.
Other witnesses included Cha Eun-taek, a music video director who has been charged with using his ties with Choi to win key culture-related projects from government agencies, and Ko Young-tae, who ran a company that made bags and clothes that Park used during overseas trips at the introduction of Choi.
If impeached, Park's presidential powers will be suspended and the country's Constitutional Court will have up to 180 days to rule on whether to formally unseat her.
On Tuesday, Park told ruling party leaders that she is willing to accept the outcome if she's impeached and would make "every available effort" to prepare for a court process. The comments suggest Park is bracing for a Constitutional Court procedure that could determine her fate, according to South Korean media.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.