By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Park Geun-hye cannot be questioned by Tuesday as prosecutors have requested, her lawyer said, as she resists growing calls to resign over an influence scandal that has engulfed her administration.
Park is under intense pressure to step down over the crisis involving a close friend accused of meddling in state affairs, with the main opposition party seeking to put an impeachment motion up for a vote as soon as Friday.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rallied for the fifth weekend in a row, calling for Park’s resignation. Organizers said the crowd totaled 1.5 million, while the police estimated the crowd at 260,000.
Park’s lawyer, Yoo Yeong-ha, said in a text message that the president had to deal with the “fast-moving situation” and so there was little time for her to cooperate with prosecutors, who had asked to question her by Tuesday.
“It is regrettable that the president cannot cooperate with face-to-face questioning the prosecutors have asked for by Nov. 29,” Yoo said in a statement.
Instead of responding to the current investigators’ request for questioning Park, 64, will prepare for an investigation by a special prosecutor that is expected to begin in December, Yoo had said previously, although prosecutors subsequently repeated their request to question the president.
Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, and a former aide have been indicted in the case. Park was named as an accomplice in an investigation into whether big businesses were inappropriately pressured to contribute money to foundations set up to back Park’s initiatives.
Park, whose single five-year term is due to end in February 2018, has apologized twice over the affair, to little effect. Her approval rating fell to just 4 percent in a weekly survey released on Friday by Gallup Korea, an all time-low for a democratically elected South Korean president.
In her second public apology, earlier this month, Park said she would make herself available to any investigation, including that of a special prosecutor, adding that she would take responsibility if found guilty.
But later the presidential office and Park’s lawyer denied the prosecutors’ accusations, with Yoo denouncing them as a “house of fantasy”.
Park, who has immunity from prosecution in the case as long as she remains in office, is alleged by prosecutors to have colluded with Choi to enable her friend to wield improper influence in government affairs and in fundraising by the two foundations.
If parliament secured the necessary two-thirds vote needed for an impeachment motion, it would be up to the Constitutional Court to confirm or reject the motion. In the meantime, the prime minister would lead the government on an interim basis.
No South Korean president has failed to complete their term since the current democratic system was implemented in 1987. If Park is impeached or resigns, an election would be held in 60 days to nominate a president to serve a five-year term.
Park’s father led South Korea for 18 years after seizing power in a military coup before he was assassinated by his disgruntled spy chief in 1979.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie)