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Politics

Park faces criminal probe over bribery allegations

Ex-president accused of conspiring to take funds from Samsung

KENICHI YAMADA, Nikkei staff writer | South Korea

SEOUL -- South Korean state prosecutors will mount a full-scale investigation of Park Geun-hye on corruption charges, probably seeking to indict the deposed president for conspiring to take bribes or extort funds from major conglomerates such as Samsung Group.

The country's Constitutional Court on Friday upheld Park's impeachment, removing her from office and stripping her of the immunity from prosecution the presidency provides. The court ruled that two sports and cultural nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a close confidante whom Park involved deeply in state affairs, exist not for the public interest but for the pair's private gain. The body also affirmed that Park abused her office and authority to facilitate Choi's pursuit of personal enrichment, paving the way for prosecutors to mount a criminal investigation.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office launched an initial probe into the allegations surrounding Park and Choi late in October. Choi was indicted on charges that she pressured major conglomerates to donate to her foundations. The office found that Park was an accomplice in many of those cases.

A special prosecution team set up by the legislature continued the investigation through the end of February. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, the group's heir apparent, was arrested for allegedly paying roughly 43 billion won ($37.1 million) to Choi's foundations to ensure support for his effective takeover of corporate control, and is currently standing trial. Park is suspected of colluding with Choi to take bribes from Samsung, prosecutors said.

The Seoul office will now take over the probe once again. It is unclear how quickly the investigation will move as the country prepares for a snap presidential election, expected to be held in May. Some have speculated that Park may not be questioned until after the race is decided to avoid tilting the outcome in favor of either the conservative or reformist camp.

Investigators may also widen the probe to include conglomerates other than Samsung. The Constitutional Court revealed that Park urged the head of Lotte Group to donate to Choi's foundations during a one-on-one meeting. The company says it was the victim of coercion. A number of corporate leaders could be called in for questioning on whether they sought favors from the ex-president.

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