The woman at the centre of the snowballing political scandal engulfing President Park Geun-hye is a “flight risk” and has been placed under emergency detention, South Korean prosecutors said yesterday.
Choi Soon-sil, who faces allegations of fraud and meddling in state affairs over her decades-long friendship with Park, was grilled for hours on Monday after she returned to the country and handed herself in.
“There is 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, and it’s possible an unexpected event could occur if she is released,” the official added.
Choi was being held at the Seoul Detention Centre, where the single cells for high-profile inmates are equipped with floor heating, a television, a folding mattress and toilet, according to media reports.
Park and Choi have been close friends for 40 years.
The precise nature of that friendship lies at the heart of the current scandal which has triggered a media frenzy in South Korea, with lurid reports of religious cults and shamanistic rituals.
The media has portrayed the 60-year-old Choi as a Rasputin-like figure, who wielded an unhealthy influence over Park and interfered in government policy despite holding no official post and having no security clearance.
Suggestions that Choi vetted presidential speeches and was given access to classified documents has exposed Park to public anger and ridicule and, with just over a year left in office, pushed her approval ratings off a cliff.
Choi has also been accused of using her relationship with the president to coerce corporate donations to two non-profit foundations, and then siphon off funds for personal use.
Park issued a public apology last week, acknowledging seeking limited advice from Choi on her speeches.
But it did little to assuage public outrage, with mass street protests erupting in Seoul and other cities to demand Park’s resignation.
Park carried out a partial reshuffle of her key aides accused of being linked to Choi on Sunday.
She is considering calls from her ruling Saenuri Party to form a neutral multi-party cabinet to restore public trust and national unity.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has stopped short of demanding the president’s resignation.
However, it is refusing to begin cross-party talks on how to end the crisis until the investigation into Choi has run its course.
Under South Korea’s constitutional law, an incumbent president is exempt from being submitted to prosecution for any criminal offence.
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.
The scandal has weighed on the South Korean currency and stocks, as investors fret about political uncertainty, with the won falling 0.9% last week while stocks slipped 0.7%.
Yesterday, although Choi was being questioned at another location, a man used a heavy construction excavator to smash the front entrance of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office building in Seoul, injuring a security guard, in an apparent act of protest against Choi.
He was arrested by police.
According to Han Jeung-sub, a senior official at the Seocho Police Station, the 45-year-old man told police: “Choi Soon-sil said she had committed a crime she deserves to die for, so I came here to help her die.”
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