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'7-hour mystery' rises as last-minute issue before impeachment vote

With only two days remaining until the parliamentary vote on impeaching President Park Geun-hye, attention once again pivoted Wednesday on an unanswered question that may possibly prove the last straw on the public’s fury: What was the president really doing on the day of the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16, 2014?

Though years have passed since the day of the accident, the agenda is still considered an indicator as to whether or not Park indeed neglected her duty as state leader -- and consequently whether or not she should be ousted from her post.

Rekindling the yearslong dispute was a recent set of news reports claiming the president spent more than 90 minutes on the day of the tragedy getting her hair done before appearing before the public in the late afternoon.

The given revelation came in the midst of the National Assembly’s ongoing hearing over the extensive corruption scandal involving Park and her lifetime confidante Choi Soon-sil, a process including heavy accusations against the president’s clumsy response to the deadly disaster.

According to Hankyoreh, a recognized progressive daily here, Park had her exclusive hairdresser brought to her residence in the early afternoon between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on that day to have her hair arranged in her signature up-style.

The daily claimed the hairdo accounted for around an hour and a half of the entire seven hours during which the state chief remained out of public view, while the clock was ticking on the sinking ferry and the rescuers on the scene.

The disclosure vexed the nation not just due to the inappropriateness of the alleged action, but also because the given circumstances seemed to fill in Park’s stubborn silence over her whereabouts on that day.
(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)
The Blue House swiftly refuted, saying the two contract-based employees in charge of the president’s hairdo and makeup only spent about 20 minutes at the presidential office, starting from 3:20 p.m.

According to the timetable suggested by Cheong Wa Dae, the two beauticians were called in as soon as Park directed preparations at 3 p.m. for visiting the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

It is the presidential office’s stern assertion that the president, though unseen in the public eye or the press, carried out official duties throughout the day, receiving 15 reports and issuing urgent presidential orders, until she decided later in the afternoon to show up at the control center. Until recently, however, it had refused to offer details on the unexplained hours, citing “national security.”

Kim Ki-choon, Park’s chief of staff at the time, also backed the Blue House by saying that the president indeed received reports during those hours.

“It is just that written reports are faster than face-to-face procedures,” Kim said at the parliamentary hearing Wednesday, in explanation for the lack of Park’s public appearance or a face-to-face encounter with officials.

But Park’s remarks at the scene, which only seemed to reflect her lack of awareness of the situation, amplified the doubts of the Blue House’s position.

“The students are wearing life vests, so why aren’t they found yet?” was her first question after she arrived at the center at 5:15 p.m., a full six hours after the sunken ferry submerged with only its bow remaining above water and most of the passengers trapped inside the capsized vessel.

The suggestion of Park’s lax response on the Sewol sinking day is expected to add momentum to public anger and the opposition political parties’ action to have the embattled president driven out by impeachment.

President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday said she would not waver even if the parliament should approve of the impeachment bill on Friday, holding ground against growing calls for her immediate ouster.

Meanwhile, chances increased that the opposition-motioned bill would make it past the legislature as the ruling Saenuri Party’s nonmainstreamers recently gestured at signing the bill.

The rebel group, consisting of some 40 members, is likely to complete the necessary two-thirds quorum to pass the impeachment bill in the 300-seat Assembly. The number of opposition and liberal-leaning independent lawmakers currently stands at 172, falling 28 short of the necessary 200.

But some last-minute tensions were detected, as the non-Park cluster demanded excluding the “seven-hour mystery” from the impeachment bill, claiming the controversial issue may lead some hesitant figures to shy away from supporting the bill. The opposition, however, refused to do so, citing the public’s anger over the issue.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)
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