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Park receives bribery grilling

She becomes fourth former president to appear at prosecutors’ office

Former President Park Geun-hye, who made her long-delayed appearance at the prosecution Tuesday for face-to-face questioning, locked horns with investigators over the corruption allegations that led to her ouster from power earlier this month.

The key target for both parties was Park’s liability for bribery, which constitutes the heaviest criminal penalty among the given charges and could therefore determine her arrest.

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

The special investigation headquarters of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday started its marathon inquiry of the former president, seeking to prove her role in the extensive scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil.

“We expect the questioning to wrap (within the day) as planned, though our prediction may not be entirely precise yet,“ senior prosecutor Roh Seung-kwon told reporters in the afternoon briefing.

Though he largely reserved detailed answers to most of the questions, citing confidentiality of the ongoing inquiry, the prosecutor suggested that the questioning process was under control.

When asked whether the summoned former president either refused to speak or lost her temper, Roh claimed that she remained composed and answered questions in a sincere manner.

But as investigators previously gestured to focus on bribery, which is the most disputed of all suggested charges, questions continued on how Park denied her allegations.

Former President Park Geun-hye heads to prosecution for questioning over corruption scandal on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Former President Park Geun-hye heads to prosecution for questioning over corruption scandal on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Park’s intermediary role – bribery or not?

Since taking over the case from the independent counsel team in late February, state prosecutors have been focusing on proving that Park shared economic interests with Choi and that her role in Choi’s profiteering constitutes bribery.

Steering the inquiry are two veteran prosecutors specializing in corporate corruption cases -- Lee One-seok and Han Woong-jae, both sternly advocating Park‘s liability.

Lee was the one to figure out Park’s involvement in the back-scratching relationship between Samsung Group and Choi, laying the grounds for indicting Park on bribery.

The nation’s top business unit allegedly offered some 43.3 billion won ($38.7 million) to Choi, her family members and a number of business organizations controlled by Choi. In exchange for the sponsorship, Samsung Group’s heir apparent Lee Jae-yong is suspected of having used Choi’s influence upon the president to facilitate his corporate succession.

One of Park’s defense arguments was that she did not profit from the Samsung-Choi ties and she had never coerced anyone for the funds.

But by deeming Park and Choi an interdependent unit with shared economic interests, Lee established the legal logic that Park’s abuse of power for Choi’s sake equally constituted bribery.

Han, who was also part of the previous investigation team before the independent counsel took over, played a key role in proving Park’s role in extorting conglomerate funds for the Mir and K-Sports foundations, both of which were controlled by Choi.

It was Han who led the questioning up to late afternoon, thus raising speculations that the investigation team primarily focused on Park’s allegations related to the foundations‘ funding.

The former president has constantly denied the alleged connection to Choi, seeking to take a step back from the entire corruption scandal pivoting on her former confidante.

“I have been framed,” Park told reporters in a closed-door briefing on New Year’s Day, sternly refuting her suspected involvement in the Samsung-Choi ties.

As for the two foundations, she repeatedly claimed their purpose was to promote the nation’s culture and sports sectors, denying knowledge of Choi’s illicit profiteering.

While bracing to collect the former president’s testimony in a rare face-to-face questioning, prosecutors also pledged to lead a fair investigation, ruling out prejudices or political intentions.

“The top priority is to confirm the facts, after which we shall decide which legal principles are to be applied,” said senior prosecutor Roh Seung-kwon in a briefing on the previous day.

Park is also charged with a series of other law violations, such as leaking confidential state documents, illicitly expelling specific civic servants upon Choi’s request, and establishing a so-called blacklist so as to exclude anti-government artists from subsidies.

Corporates, victim or bribegiver?

Another key issue that prosecutors expect to prove through Park’s inquiry is that the conglomerates that funded Choi and her businesses are also wrongdoers in bribery, regardless of the political coercion they received from the former president.

The investigation team had earlier concluded that the conglomerates, including Samsung, had been forced by Park and Choi to offer donations, thus excluding them from bribery charges.

The successive independent counsel team, however, claimed the corporate funds were in compensatory relation with other benefits and thus constituted kickbacks.

For instance, Samsung had Park exert influence in a disputed merger of its affiliates so as to increase the share of heir apparent Lee Jae-yong, in exchange of its sponsorship for Choi’s equestrian daughter Chung Yoo-ra and to Choi’s business units.

The nation’s third-largest conglomerate SK Group is suspected of offering similar benefits to Choi in exchange of having its jailed chief Chey Tae-won pardoned, while Lotte Group allegedly sought benefits for its duty-free shop business.

Reflecting the independent counsel’s view, state prosecutors are considering indicting Park on both coercion and bribery, on the claim that the two charges do not contradict one another, according to sources.

Under such circumstances, corporations are likely to face punishment for their active role in the triangular bribery framework -- seeking their business interests through Park while offering corresponding kickbacks to Choi.

This logic of double liability will also increase the possibilities of Park’s arrest, which will put the former president on the same position as her arrested former aides.

The list of arrested key figures include Choi, Samsung Group chief Lee, former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon, former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, former Senior Presidential Secretary for Policy Coordination An Chong-bum and former Presidential Personal Secretary Jeong Ho-seong.

Investigators had sought to hold a cross examination between Park and her arrested aides, but the attempt was thwarted.

”We have summoned Choi, Jeong and An but all of them submitted non-attendance statements, refusing to show up,“ said an official of the investigation team.

Prospects on arrest

Prosecutors are expected to decide whether or not to seek an arrest warrant for Park as early as this week or early next week. The conventional custom for prosecutors is to make the decision within three days from the inquiry of the key suspect.

The general view among legal circles is that the investigation team will make the request to the court in consideration of the seriousness of the case and Park‘s constant denial of charges.

Prosecutors have also expressed concerns on the destruction of evidence, pointing to Park’s refusal to be questioned and of the raid of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in the past months.

The Criminal Procedure Code states that a criminal suspect may be investigated under custody should he or she lack a fixed residence or if there is the possibility of destroying evidence.

But concerns also persist that an unconventional arrest of the former president may take public attention away from election agendas.

With Park’s ouster from power, an earlier-than-planned presidential election is set to take place on May 9 to select the next state chief.

By Bae Hyun-jung (