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Park open to independent graft probe

President Park Geun-hye said Thursday she would take every possible means to resolve escalating graft allegations involving her close confidants, including launching an independent probe into the case.

“I will review any measures in order to completely clear suspicions,” she was quoted as saying in a closed-door meeting with the ruling Saenuri Party chairman Kim Moo-sung. “There’s no reason to refuse an independent probe if it helps to uncover the truth,” Kim quoted Park as saying.

Park’s endorsement of the independent probe appears to show her determination that she would discard any corrupt officials regardless of their position or association with her. It was also seen as a move to open leeway for a wider prosecutorial probe encompassing politicians from across the spectrum.

The remarks came shortly after the surprise meeting with Kim at her office on Thursday afternoon, just before she left for a 12-day Latin American tour.

Park calling Rep. Kim to her office in the last minute was seen as an attempt to face the snowballing graft scandal that has alleged eight political bigwigs of accepting illegal political funds from a deceased businessman in recent years. Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, one of the eight, is suspected of accepting 30 million won ($27,500) in cash from the late Keangnam chairman Sung Woan-jong. As opposition and some ruling party lawmakers escalated their demand for his resignation, Lee continued to deny the claim and rejected the calls to step down.

President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with ruling Saenuri Party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. (Yonhap)
President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with ruling Saenuri Party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. (Yonhap)

On the fate of the embattled prime minister, the president said she would make a decision after she returns from the trip. She returns to Seoul on April 27.

The prosecution launched a special probe into the case after a memo was found from the businessman found dead in apparent suicide last week. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy has been calling for an independent probe, questioning the political neutrality of the law enforcement agency.

The private meeting between Park and Kim came after she urged the nation to move on from the Sewol tragedy and join hands to make the country a safer place for future generations as South Korea marked the first anniversary of the ill-fated ship on Thursday.

“Now, I sincerely request the nation to move on from the pain of the Sewol, to ride out the storm and to take the path toward a new Republic of Korea,” she said in an address delivered at Paengmok Harbor on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province. The harbor is close to the accident site where the ferry sank with more than 450 passengers aboard.

“We cannot continue to be lost in grief. ... Now we should all rise and join hands to make a safe nation ― a job that must be done for our descendants,” she said.

The president, dressed in a black suit, also promised to have the ship salvaged as soon as possible, and to continue efforts to recover the bodies of the nine passengers still missing since the accident.

“I believe that we now have to seriously prepare for the ship’s recovery,” Park said, standing on the seawall that carried signs urging the government to salvage the ship.

“The government will step up efforts to take necessary procedures and begin work to lift the ship as soon as possible,” she added.

But Park’s gesture of flying out some 350 kilometers southwest of Seoul was snubbed by the bereaved families.

She failed to meet any of the bereaved families of Sewol victims as they left the site in an apparent show of protest against her and the government. The president tried to get into a memorial altar on the harbor, but couldn’t as the door was blocked by tables with pictures of missing people. Paengmok Harbor has served as a shelter for the victims’ families since the accident, as they wait for the missing bodies.

They have been protesting against the government’s delayed decision on salvaging the ship and an enforcement decree the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries introduced last month. Families fear that the new rules drafted by the government for the Sewol bill could interfere in an independent probe into its botched rescue mission. In the decree, the ministry said it would deploy a number of public servants to the investigation team.

Later in the afternoon, she left for a 12-day overseas trip. She plans to visit Colombia, Chile, Peru and Brazil to promote diplomatic and business ties with the South American countries.

The presidential office appears to have struggled to quell growing criticism of her overseas trip, as her departure was planned for the same day the nation marked the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy.

Cheong Wa Dae has also been facing the opposition party’s demand to cancel the trip as she leaves the country amid escalating graft allegations that her aides used the cash for her presidential election in 2012.

By Cho Chung-un (