South Korea passes law on independent probe of President Park
Published 17/11/2016 | 10:01
South Korea's parliament has passed a law which would allow a special prosecutor to investigate a corruption scandal threatening the presidency of Park Geun-hye.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly also voted for a parliamentary investigation into allegations that Ms Park allowed a secretive confidante to manipulate power from the shadows and amass an illicit fortune.
The law on an independent investigation came as state prosecutors prepared to indict Ms Park's friend by Sunday. Prosecutors had sought to question the president this week, but on Thursday her lawyer asked for another week to prepare.
An independent investigation would increase the pressure on Ms Park, who has been facing growing calls by opposition politicians to resign.
Although emboldened by a wave of massive protests, opposition parties have yet to seriously push for Ms Park's impeachment for fear of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively affecting next year's presidential election.
Ms Park has apologised for letting her friend Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late cult leader who emerged as Ms Park's mentor in the 1970s, edit some of her draft speeches and for the public anger caused by the scandal. But she has not commented on the most damning accusations that she let Ms Choi manipulate important government decisions on policy and personnel.
Under South Korean law, the president has immunity from prosecution except in cases of treason, but she can be investigated.
The law passed on Thursday requires Ms Park to select a special prosecutor among two candidates proposed by opposition parties to lead an investigation which would obviously be aimed at exposing her own wrongdoings.
The special prosecutor can form a team of 60, including up to 20 state prosecutors, and will have 90 days to investigate and determine whether to pursue charges. The investigation period can be extended to 120 days, but only if Ms Park approves.
Opposition politicians have been pushing for an independent investigation into the scandal over concerns that state prosecutors' close ties with presidential officials might inject bias into their probe.
In a televised apology earlier this month, Ms Park said she would accept a direct investigation into her actions, including one pushed by a special prosecutor.
The launching of an investigation by a special prosecutor would automatically stop the probe by state prosecutors. The special prosecutor can pursue additional charges against suspects that weren't included in indictments by state prosecutors.
Ms Choi, whom prosecutors arrested earlier this month, has been suspected of interfering with government decisions on policy and personnel despite holding no official government job, and exploiting her presidential ties to bully companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to organisations she controlled.
The increasingly strange scandal surrounding Ms Choi has inspired rumours and left her being accused of everything from influencing national security decisions through swaying the careers of pop singers to swinging construction deals for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Extending a series of massive protests in the capital, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rallied in Seoul on Saturday calling for Ms Park's resignation in what may have been the largest anti-government protest since the country shook off dictatorship three decades ago. The president's supporters have been staging smaller counter-rallies in the city, shouting that she should keep her job.
Ms Park has 15 months left of her term. If she steps down before the end of it, an election must be held within 60 days.