An unprecedented prosecutorial probe of an incumbent state leader seemed just around the corner Sunday, as prosecutors vowed to carry out a face-to-face questioning session with President Park Geun-hye, and Cheong Wa Dae, for the first time, gestured compliance.
This development came amid the ongoing probe on the president’s confidante Choi Soon-sil and in the wake of a record-breaking candlelight vigil held Saturday night to demand Park’s resignation.
“We have delivered our stance to Cheong Wa Dae, that we will question (the president) on Tuesday or Wednesday this week,” said an official of the special prosecution team in charge of the extensive influence-peddling scandal surrounding Choi.
“We are waiting for a sincere reply (from the presidential office).”
As for the detailed method and schedule of the questioning, the prosecution is still in talks with Choi Jai-kyeong, the recently-appointed senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, according to officials. Choi was a former prosecutor himself, having served as chief of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office.
“For now, the president will be questioned as a witness,” the official also said.
“Though details such as the time and place (of the questioning) are yet to be discussed, the questioning will basically take place in a face-to-face format.”
The Blue House, which had so far kept silence over the talks of prosecutorial questioning, replied this time.
“(The presidential office) will be able to confirm its stance on the day after (Tuesday) at the earliest, due to consideration of the president’s schedule and the appointment of a legal representative,” the presidential spokesperson Jung Youn-kuk said in a text message distributed to reporters.
The spokesperson’s remarks came shortly after news reports quoted the prosecution as pledging to question the president by Wednesday. The given timeline largely comes in line with the fact that the Choi’s detention period is set to expire on Nov. 20.
The questioning, if it takes place, is to be the first time in South Korea’s history that a standing president has faced a prosecutorial probe.
“I am ready to accept prosecutorial probe, even one by an independent counsel, if necessary,” Park vowed earlier in her address to the nation on Nov. 4, her second one since the Choi scandal broke out in late October.
Speculations have risen that investigators, in recognition of the unique circumstances, may choose to meet Park in a place other than the prosecutors’ office or Cheong Wa Dae.
Meanwhile, it yet remains unclear whether the embattled president will indeed defect from the ruling Saenuri Party, resign from her post or hand over all practical power to an incoming prime minister.
“(All presidential officials) agreed that we should humbly accept the people’s voice and take it gravely,” said a Cheong Wa Dae official, after an urgent senior presidential secretaries’ meeting chaired by Chief of Staff Han Gwang-ok in the morning.
The meeting, which went on for an hour from 10 a.m., was originally scheduled for later in the afternoon but was moved forward following the nationwide candlelight vigil the previous night.
But regarding more details of the forthcoming countermeasures, the Blue House continued to remain reserved.
“We gathered the opinion of each (senior presidential official) and are pondering various measures,” the official said.
The presidential office’s worry, however, is that neither defection nor withdrawing to take a backseat in state affairs will appease the public.
Despite Park’s actions so far -- including two public apologies, a shake-up of the Cabinet and of the presidential secretariat and her consent to let parliament appoint a prime minister -- her approval rating has remained in the record-low 5 percent range over the past two weeks.
It was amid such lackluster responses from the president that an hours-long protesting rally was held in central Seoul and throughout the nation Saturday, gathering up to 1 million participants.
By Bae Hyun-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)