Park Geun-hye

South Korean prosecutors detain Choi Soon-sil, woman at centre of presidential crisis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 9:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 11:33pm

The woman at the centre of the snowballing political scandal engulfing President Park Geun-hye has been put under emergency detention after prosecutors said she was “unstable” and a flight risk.

Choi Soon-sil, who faces allegations of fraud and meddling in state affairs over her decades-long friendship with Park, was grilled for hours Monday after she returned to the country and handed herself in following mass street protests.

“There is a possibility of Choi trying to destroy evidence as she is denying all the allegations,” a prosecution official told the Yonhap news agency, explaining the decision to hold her for 48 hours.

“She has fled overseas in the past, and she doesn’t have a permanent address in this country, making her a flight risk.

“She is also in an extremely unstable psychological state,” the official added.

Prosecutors have said they are investigating whether Choi used her friendship with Park to gain access to classified documents that enabled her to influence government matters and benefited personally through non-profit foundations.

The swirling scandal has sparked public anger and sent Park’s approval rating to a record low, with thousands of protestors gathered in Seoul on Saturday night calling for her to step down. Park accepted the resignations of eight of her top aides over the weekend.

Watch: Protests add pressure on South Korea’s scandal-hit president

Choi, 60, arrived at the prosecutor’s office on Tuesday morning in handcuffs and a surgical mask and wearing a dark coat, escorted by correctional officers.

Prosecutors have to decide whether to seek a warrant to formally arrest Choi before the emergency detention period expires.

Park, 64, and Choi have known each other for decades, and Park said in a televised apology last week that her friend had helped her through difficult times.

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Park’s father Park Chung-hee led South Korea for 18 years after seizing power in a military coup in 1961. Park Geun-hye served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by an assassin trying to shoot her father, who was himself murdered by his disgruntled spy chief in 1979.

Park is in the fourth year of a five-year term and the crisis threatens to complicate policymaking during the lame-duck period that typically sets in towards the end of South Korea’s single-term presidency.

According to a survey published Tuesday, Park’s approval rating was 9.2 per cent, with 67 per cent of voters saying she should step down.

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The Hankyoreh newspaper reported Tuesday that Choi had been a frequent visitor to the presidential Blue House since Park took office in 2013 - something Park’s administration has staunchly denied.

Choi begged forgiveness when she arrived to meet prosecutors on Monday.

In an interview with South Korea’s Segye Ilbo newspaper published on Thursday, Choi said she received drafts of Park’s speeches after Park’s election victory but denied she had access to other official material, or that she influenced state affairs or benefited financially.

Park said last week she had given Choi access to speech drafts early in her term and apologised for causing concern among the public.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse