South Korean prosecutors on Friday continued their ongoing investigation into companies that raised money for nonprofit foundations linked to President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, seeking to prove that the money involved amounted to bribes for the president’s inner circle.
Earlier in the day, the special investigative team summoned an official from SK Group for questioning on allegation that the corporation illegally lobbied the Park administration to win back its duty-free shop licenses it had lost last year.
There has been suspicion that the government had changed regulations for the duty-free shop licensing to help SK and Lotte Group.
It has been alleged that the donations to Mir and K-Sports foundations by the SK, Lotte, Samsung, Hyundai Motors and other large companies had been bribes. Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil, who is related to establishment of the two organizations, is believed to have embezzled some or all of the money, which totaled $77.4 billion won ($65.8 million).
Some companies have also received requests for additional donations, such as SK and Lotte, who were asked respectively to donate an extra 8 billion won and 7.5 billion won after heads of the companies had a private meeting with Park.
Choi and former presidential secretary An Chong-bum have been indicted on charges of abusing their authority during the establishment of the two organizations. The prosecution recently added bribery to the charges against the pair.
Prosecutor General Kim Soo-nam enters the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul on Friday. Yonhap
The focus of the prosecution’s investigation has recently been to link the bribery charges to Park herself. The prosecution had specified Park as an accomplice to Choi and An, making it likely that any proven bribery will be traced back to the president.
Prosecutor General Kim Soo-nam has reportedly led the active investigation into Park’s inner circle, with sources saying that he suggested that they include bribery charges for Choi and An.
As of Friday, investigators raided the offices of Lotte and SK, along with those of Samsung Group and the National Pension Service, related to allegations of corruption related to Park.
Prosecutors are looking into suspicion that the president pressured the NPS to back the merger of Samsung C&T with Cheil Industries. The NPS holds shares in both companies. Samsung is believed to have provided sizeable support for Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra, while being the biggest benefactor of the Mir and K-Sports foundations.
There has been suspicion that such actions by the NPS have been in return for Samsung’s financial support. Chung was illegally admitted to Ewha Womans University, and received unlawful favors during her middle, high school and college years, according to an Education Ministry investigation.
Government offices including the Finance Ministry have also been raided, with the prosecution looking for evidence of “illegal solicitation.” Proving that the donations were solicitation, not a result of coercion, is the key to proving that they were actually bribes.
Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho declined to comment on the raid, saying it was “not yet time to say something.”
Although the prosecution said it would continue to request a face-to-face interview with Park, she has vowed not to cooperate with its investigation. The ball now appears to be in the court of an independent counsel, which is expected to start an investigation into the scandal early next month.
“Our consistent stance has been to try our best in the investigation until the day we hand over the case to the independent counsel,” an official from the prosecution said.
Between the snowballing scandal and Park’s approval rating falling to a new low of 4 percent -- according to Gallup Korea -- the bribery charges are expected to all but confirm the prospect of Park’s impeachment.
The National Assembly’s previous attempt to impeach a president -- ex-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 -- had failed after nationwide protests against the move. But in the process, the Constitutional ruling effectively outlined the criteria for a president’s impeachment as “an act of corruption by abusing one’s power and position, such as receiving bribes or embezzling public funds.”
Adding bribery charges will also allow a harsher punishment on the accused. The major charges against the suspects in the scandal currently is abuse of authority, the maximum penalty for which is five years in prison.
But the punishment for bribery -- for sums of 100 million won or more -- starts with 10 years in prison and peaks at lifetime imprisonment.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com