[David Ignatius] Midterms as the ‘impeachment election’

Lee’s arrest puts Park under pressure

Counsel to accelerate probe on president, summon Lee Jae-yong on Saturday

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Published : 2017-02-17 18:40
Updated : 2017-02-17 19:35

With the arrest of Samsung Group’s heir apparent Lee Jae-yong, the special counsel team is likely to accelerate its investigation into President Park Geun-hye who is suspected of receiving bribes and giving favors in return.

Lee, Samsung Electronics vice chairman, was arrested early Friday morning, after a court approved the second request from the counsel to issue a warrant. He is suspected of offering 43 billion won ($36 million) to Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime friend, which the investigators see were in effect bribes to the president. 
Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., leaves the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul on Feb. 16, 2017, after a hearing on the legitimacy of his arrest sought for the second time by special prosecutors for alleged bribery related to the merger of two of Samsung's affiliates involving impeached President Park Geun-hye. (Yonhap)

The billionaire tycoon is now locked in solitary confinement at a detention facility in Uiwang, southwest of Seoul.

He will be summoned for questioning Saturday, Lee Kyu-chul, spokesperson for the counsel said.

“After an additional investigation, we will likely press charges against him before the probe’s (Feb. 28) deadline,” he added.

Prosecutors can detain him for up to 21 days before formally indicting him.

Lee is the first head of the country’s conglomerates to be taken into custody in connection with President Park’s corruption scandal. He is accused of bribery, embezzlement, perjury, the concealment of criminal proceeds and illicit transfer of assets abroad.

The arrest of Samsung Group’s de facto leader was a much-needed boost for the special counsel team, which in recent days had hit a snag in its efforts to investigate the dubious connection between Park, Choi and Samsung Group.

Last week, the presidential office had unilaterally cancelled a scheduled face-to-face session between Park and investigators. The same office had earlier blocked the team’s search of its compound, citing security reasons. On Thursday, a local administrative court dismissed the counsel’s request to suspend the presidential office’s refusal to be searched, dimming prospects of the raid taking place.  

Buoyed by Lee’s arrest, however, the independent counsel will likely press ahead with the direct interview of President Park who the team views as being at the core of the alleged bribery.

The counsel’s spokesperson said Friday that the team is in talks with Cheong Wa Dae to decide on the location and timing of Park’s questioning, which would mark the first time in Korean history for a sitting president to be interrogated.

The team’s first attempt failed after Park abruptly called it off, accusing the team of leaking the schedule to the media.

The counsel team suspects that President Park, in return for the money provided to Choi, may have supported Samsung Group's founding family to smoothly transfer power from the ailing group chairman Lee Kun-hee to his only son Jae-yong.  

Lee has denied all charges, saying he was forced to make donations to entities controlled by Choi, including the K-Sports and Mir foundations, and did not seek any business favors in return.

A key remaining variable for the special counsel is whether it will be granted an extension in the investigation period which is to end on Feb. 28.

The team said during the briefing that it will call in Woo Byung-woo, an ex-presidential secretary for civil affairs, as a suspect on charges of abuse of authority Saturday. Woo is suspected of condoning Park’s friend Choi’s meddling in state affairs and exerting undue influence in personnel appointments in the government.

It has yet to decide whether to investigate other companies including Lotte, SK and CJ Group that offered donations to the Mir and K-Sports foundations, considering the remaining time for the probe, the team said.

The team Thursday formally requested an extension of the probe by a month to acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. It remains unclear whether Hwang, who was appointed by the president herself, will approve it.

The arrest is also expected to take a toll on President Park who is awaiting a decision on whether she will be impeached at the Constitutional Court. Park has denied the bribery allegations, a key charge behind her impeachment.

President Park’s legal representatives said that the arrest of Lee will have no impact on the ongoing impeachment trial.

“It is premature to say, but the arrest will have no impact on the impeachment,” Park’s lawyer Sohn Beom-kyu said Friday. “Lee’s charges of embezzling company funds, concealing criminal proceeds and hiding assets abroad is not at all related to the reasons behind Park’s impeachment.”

With the Constitutional Court setting Feb. 24 for the final hearing of Park’s impeachment trial, speculation is growing that the court’s ruling will be made in early March before acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi’s term ends on March 13.

President Park has appeared to try to delay court proceedings by asking for a long list of witnesses and additional hearings, which critics see as boosting chances for her to be reinstated.

After the departure of the acting Justice Lee, President Park will only need two of the remaining seven justices on her side to avoid impeachment. Her ouster requires the approval of at least six justices.

Welcoming the court’s decision to arrest Lee, the opposition bloc has also stepped up pressure on Hwang to extend the term of the probe.

“The independent counsel is doing its best, but it is only halfway through the probe. Hwang should make a decision on whether to extend the probe term for follow-up measures,” Rep. Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea told reporters.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)