NATIONAL

Park placed behind bars over corruption scandal

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Mar 31, 2017 - 15:53
  • Updated : Mar 31, 2017 - 15:57
Just three weeks ago, Park Geun-hye called the presidential palace her home. In a dramatic downfall, the former president now must eat and sleep in a jail cell, locked up in the same prison where her longtime friend and aides are being held.

Park, who was the first woman to reach the highest office in South Korea, ended up becoming the nation’s first president to be removed from power by impeachment and the third to be arrested. 

Ousted President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)

In the early hours of Friday, the Seoul Central District Court issued the arrest warrant to detain Park for corruption charges, after a nearly nine-hour hearing the previous day and marathon deliberations. The court said her charges were clarified and there is risk of Park destroying evidence.

Park left the prosecutor’s office at 4:29 a.m. to be transferred to a detention facility south of Seoul, where her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil and Samsung Group’s de facto chief are in custody.

Locked up in a solitary cell at the detention center in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, the former president would go through a grueling investigation by the prosecution and, if indicted, a trial.

To be put in a cell, she had her identity checked, received a medical check-up, changed into a prison uniform and had her mugshot taken. She will have to eat alone and wash dishes herself, like any other prisoners.

With the arrest warrant, the prosecution can hold her for up to 20 days before indicting her. Prosecutors are expected to file charges against her by mid-April, mindful of the impact Park’s arrest will have on the presidential election campaigns.

Park faces a total of 13 charges including bribery, coercion, abuse of power and leaking government secrets, with bribery carrying the heaviest punishment among all the charges. If convicted of bribery, she could be sentenced to life imprisonment or a term of at least 10 years.

Park is suspected of extorting donations worth 77.4 billion won ($69.6 million) from local firms, including Samsung Group, for the Mir and K-Sports foundations controlled by Choi in return for political favors. 

An independent counsel team, which ended its 70-day probe into the scandal on Feb. 28, concluded that part of Samsung’s donations had been bribes made in return for political favors. Samsung’s de-facto leader Lee Jae-yong is standing trial for offering or promising to offer bribes to Park and her friend Choi.

Park’s other charges include allowing Choi to meddle in state affairs, leaking government secrets to her and discriminating against artists with liberal views.

Park has denied all the charges. She said local firms voluntarily donated the money and claimed no knowledge of any illegal activities by Choi and her inner circle.

Former President Park Geun-hye's hair (R) not coiffed as she leaves the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office in a car on March 31, 2017, to be transfered to a detention house after a court issued a warrant to arrest her in connection with a corruption scandal that led to her removal from office. Park was seen emerging with the cropped chignon style (L) that is her trademark, after attending the court's hearing to determine whether to approve the warrant the previous day. (Yonhap)

With Park’s arrest, the prosecution has two remaining tasks – wrapping up a probe on Woo Byung-woo, the former presidential secretary for civil affairs, and other local firms suspected of donating money for the K-Sports and Mir foundations.

Other companies including SK and Lotte are also accused of seeking favors from the Park administration in return for contributing money to the foundations allegedly controlled by Choi. SK is under suspicion that it sought a special pardon for its chairman Chey Tae-won and Lotte allegedly wanted to secure a business right for its duty free shop.

Woo, prosecutor-turned-government official, is suspected of assisting or condoning Choi’s meddling in state affairs during his term at the presidential office. He is also accused of peddling undue influence over the prosecution and disrupting a probe into the sinking of the Sewol ferry.

Park was expelled from office on March 10, with less than a year remaining in her five-year term, in a unanimous decision by the Constitutional Court to finalize the Dec. 9 parliamentary impeachment.

The Constitutional Court acknowledged Park’s role in letting Choi, who holds no government post, meddle in state affairs and manipulate power from behind the scene.

South Koreans showed mixed reactions to the former president’s arrest.

“The arrest is a natural consequence for the corrupt leader. We are paying the price for picking a wrong leader,” Lee Chan-ki, a 43-year-old office worker told The Korea Herald, accusing Park of not showing any remorse. “It is humiliating that no president in the country seems to have honorably stepped down from their post.”

Some echoed hope for a fairer and more democratic society after justice is served for Park.

“Park’s arrest made me believe that everyone can be equal before the law,” said a 30-year-old student Jung Sung-hoon. “I hope politicians fear its people and finally work for us who are the owner of this country.”

But Park’s loyal fans have had difficulties coping with Park’s arrest.

Some of her supporters staged a rally outside the prosecution’s office and a detention center overnight waiting for Park to appear. They cried out loud, chanting her name and demanding her release.

“The prosecution and court are unchallenged power. Why should they make the president wear a prison uniform when a trial without detaining her is also possible?” said Joo Ok-soon, a head of pro-Park civic group, in front of the detention facility.

Friday was also the day when the raised Sewol ferry was brought to shore, nearly three years after it sank off the nation’s southwest coast and killed 304 people.

Once the ferry is moved onto a dry dock, the salvage team plans to investigate the ferry to find the causes behind its sinking and find the nine missing bodies.

Park’s failure to save more lives and properly respond to the nation’s worst maritime disaster was one of the reasons that led the parliament to vote to impeach her in early December.

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