Choi Soon-sil will attend the impeachment trial of her longtime friend President Park Geun-hye for the first time this week, her lawyer has said, as the court seeks to expedite proceedings.
The Constitutional Court has added another hearing to this week’s schedule in the ongoing trial, in response to apparent delay tactics by Park’s attorneys.
The nine judges of South Korea’s top court have scheduled sessions for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, summoning key witnesses including Choi Soon-Sil, Park’s confidante who is accused of manipulating power behind the scenes.
Choi’s alleged meddling is a core reason behind the parliament’s impeachment of Park on Dec. 9.
Her lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, said Choi would appear at court as requested Monday. The 60-year-old, who has known Park for 40 years, had so far refused to attend, citing the ongoing investigation and her own trial.
She is on trial for colluding with Park and presidential secretaries to extort 77.4 billion won ($65.1 million) from local businesses in the form of donations to two non-profit foundations she controlled. The entities -- the Mir and K-Sports foundations -- are suspected to be covers for channeling money for Choi’s personal gain.
An Chong-bum, Park’s former aide who is standing trial on the same charges as Choi, has also been summoned to the Constitutional Court’s Monday hearing as a witness.
On Tuesday, the court will put other key witnesses on the stand, including former Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong and Ko Young-tae, a former associate of Choi.
Yoo, who stepped down in July 2014 amid a fallout with Park, will be questioned over Park’s alleged abuse of power to help Choi’s foundations and fundraising for them.
Yoo also disclosed earlier in a recent radio interview that he saw a blacklist detailing thousands of anti-government artists in June 2014, shortly before he was replaced. The allegation is currently being investigated by Special Counsel Young-soo, but is not listed in Park’s impeachment motion.
Former presidential secretaries An Bong-geun, Jeong Ho-seong and Lee Jae-man are scheduled to testify Thursday about Park’s whereabouts during the “missing seven hours” on April 16, 2014, when the ferry Sewol sank, resulting in the loss of more than 300 lives.
Park’s lawyers submitted last week a 16-page statement to clear suspicions about the president’s alleged neglect of duty during the national disaster, but the court dismissed it as “insufficient” and ordered a resubmission.
The president herself might be attending the upcoming hearings amid widening criticism of her no-shows at the impeachment trial, according to Yonhap News on Sunday. She has so far refused to appear.
Some of Park’s former aides such as An Chong-bum and Lee Jae-man -- considered key persons with knowledge of Park-Choi ties, as well as the president’s whereabouts on the day of the Sewol disaster -- have also failed to attend the trial so far.
The court couldn’t deliver summonses to them because they could not be contacted or found at their registered addresses all week. By law, witnesses cannot punished if they did not receive their summonses.
Since Dec. 9, Park’s presidential powers have been suspended as the National Assembly voted to impeach her over violations of the Constitution, abuse of power and bribery, among other charges.
Over the past few months, millions of protesters took to the streets to demand her immediate resignation, but Park indicated that she will fight the case in court.
If the witnesses fail to appear at court this week, the court is expected to proceed without them. The Constitutional Court has until June to decide whether to officially end her presidency or reinstate her.
By Bak Se-hwan (sh@heraldcorpcom