March 31, 2017 5:00 am JST

South Korean scandal reaches climax with arrest of Park

Former president faces string of charges

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

Park Geun-hye walks into the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday.

SEOUL -- The political scandal that has rocked South Korea since October is coming to a boil after a Seoul court approved a warrant for the arrest of impeached President Park Geun-hye early Friday.

The former leader abused her power by collecting money from businesses and violating the freedom of corporate management, the prosecutors' office had said when requesting the warrant. She denied the allegations against her at an earlier questioning and could destroy evidence unless detained, they explained.

In light of the court's decision, prosecutors immediately detained her, making her the third former South Korean president to be arrested. Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan were arrested in 1995.

Park maintained her innocence at a hearing that began Thursday at the Seoul Central District Court. She is the first former president to attend a hearing on her own potential arrest.

Park's supporters flocked to her home in Seoul on Thursday morning before she was driven to the courthouse. Even her brother, Park Ji-man, who she apparently has not seen for some time, was there. Clad in a navy suit, the disgraced president arrived at the Seoul court around 10:20 a.m. She walked into the building with a grim expression, ignoring questions from the press.

Park was questioned for nearly nine hours, with some breaks in between. This is the longest hearing on record since South Korean courts began holding hearings on arrest warrants, according to local media. The former leader was then driven to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, where she awaited the court's decision.

Park is suspected of receiving or being promised a total of 43.3 billion won ($38.7 million at current rates) in bribes for supporting a merger between two Samsung Group affiliates, as well as of pressuring corporations to donate to two foundations run by her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, among other illegal activities. She could face 13 criminal counts, including bribery, abuse of power, coercion and leaking state secrets, according to prosecutors and an independent special prosecutor who pursued the case.

Choi, who prosecutors have identified as Park's accomplice, and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong have already been arrested and indicted. "It would be unfair" not to seek Park's arrest, a source from the prosecutors' office had said.

Park on Thursday denied that Choi had any input in policy other than looking over some speech drafts, or that the president herself reaped personal gains from her position. She insisted there were no legitimate grounds for her arrest, and that she had no intention of destroying any evidence related to her case.

About 70% of South Koreans supported her arrest, according to various opinion polls.

Park lost presidential immunity when the Constitutional Court finalized her impeachment March 10, meaning prosecutors can now indict her on charges related to the scandal.

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