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Ex-President Park's confidante pleads not guilty in court review over bribery case

A longtime friend of jailed former President Park Geun-hye pleaded not guilty on Wednesday as she attended the first hearing for a Supreme Court-ordered review of a corruption scandal involving her and Park that led to the president's ouster in March 2017.

In August, the top court sent the case back to the Seoul High Court, ordering a review of the lower court's decision on Choi Soon-sil, also in jail, and Park. They were sentenced by the lower court last year to 20 years and 25 years in jail, respectively, on multiple corruption charges.

"I was never a secret adviser of President Park (for state affairs)," Choi told the court hearing, reiterating her claim she had been falsely charged. "I just helped President Park while leading an ordinary life as the owner of a kindergarten, and I swear to God I never had any connection to corporations."

Choi Soon-sil (Yonhap)
Choi Soon-sil (Yonhap)

She also rejected the top court's ruling that the three horses gifted to Choi for her daughter's use by Samsung Group should be considered bribes. "I can hardly treat them as bribes because Samsung owns them and has a right to dispose of them," she said.

The unprecedented corruption scandal was brought to light in October 2016 when local cable network JTBC unveiled Choi's tablet PC, indicating that she had meddled in state affairs using her ties with Park.

Park allegedly allowed Choi, who did not hold any government post, to gain access to drafts of presidential speeches and edit them, some of which were classified as confidential.

The former president was also accused of colluding with Choi in forcing local conglomerates, including Samsung Group, to donate tens of billions of won to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi. 

At Wednesday's court proceeding, Choi called for the court not to recognize any collusion between her and Park, with her lawyer asking for Park and her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, to be summoned as witnesses in the review of her case.

The lawyer claimed the court has so far recognized that Choi and Park had a collusive relationship without coming up with rational grounds. "It seems that this is because former President Park has yet to have an opportunity to testify in favor of the reliability of an assertion that denies the two's conspiracy," he said.

In sending their cases back to the high court, the top court found Choi not guilty of part of her charges involving coercion.

But there has been speculation that the review of her case would make no major change in the length of her sentence, as coercion charges are not as severe as those involving bribery and abuse of power, of which the top court found her guilty.

A court hearing for the reconsideration of Park's case has yet to be fixed. Park, who was arrested shortly after her removal, has refused to appear in court and called the charges against her political retribution, adding she lacks trust in the judiciary. (Yonhap)