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Samsung arrest prompts questions about Park's fate

The arrest of Samsung Group's de facto leader has prompted questions about the fate of President Park Geun-hye, who has been impeached for allegedly extorting money from conglomerates including Samsung.

Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., was arrested Friday on suspicion of offering 43 billion won ($36.3 million) worth of bribes to Park's friend Choi Soon-sil in exchange for business favors.

President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)
President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)

The president's lawyers dismissed any link between the arrest and the impeachment trial currently under way at the Constitutional Court.

They especially pointed to the fact that the same court that approved the arrest this time rejected special prosecutors' earlier request for a warrant when it involved only bribery charges. In making a second request, the prosecutors added charges of hiding criminal proceeds and violating a law on transferring assets abroad.

"It's unclear which of the (allegations) led the court to issue the warrant," said an official working with Park's lawyers.

"I think the additional allegations have nothing to do with the president."

Prosecutors suspect Lee offered the bribes to Choi in exchange for the government's backing of a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015, which was seen as crucial to the heir apparent's management succession plan.

The National Assembly impeachment panel, which serves as the prosecution in the trial, hailed the arrest as a reflection of the court's suspicions about the president's bribetaking.

"The argument that President Park's lawyers have made that she did not seriously violate the law because she did not make personal gains will lose ground," said an official involved in the panel.

The Constitutional Court is expected to deliver a verdict in early March after concluding the trial's hearings next Friday. If Park is ousted, South Korea is required to hold a presidential by-election within 60 days. If she is reinstated, the election will be held in December as scheduled. (Yonhap)