Ousted South Korean president Park Geun-Hye was questioned by prosecutors Tuesday over the corruption and abuse of power scandal that brought her down, after using executive privilege to avoid them for months while in office.
Park apologised to the public as she arrived at the prosecutors’ office in Seoul, adding: “I will undergo the investigation sincerely.”
South Korea’s first female president, Park was impeached by parliament in December as millions of people took to the streets to demand her removal over the sprawling scandal, which has exposed the links between politics and business in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Her dismissal was confirmed by the country’s top court earlier this month, ending the political career of a woman who grew up in the presidential palace as the daughter of army-backed dictator Park Chung-Hee.
A private citizen once again, Park’s convoy drove at walking pace through crowds of flag-waving supporters lining the street outside her home — some of them lying on the pavement to try to block her exit before she left.
Every inch of the journey was covered live on television, with cameramen trailing the vehicles in cars and on motorcycles, and at fixed points along the route.
Questioning by prosecutors is a key step in South Korea’s judicial process before a suspect is charged. It can last for many hours, late into the night and can be repeated if officials deem it necessary.
Park faced two prosecutors and an investigator, and was accompanied by one of her lawyers, but standard procedure bars him from interjecting, only allowing consultations during rest breaks — which could be an issue for her.
The 65-year-old has a reputation for fastidiousness and as president reportedly refused to use toilets that had been employed by others, with her staff said to insist facilities be replaced before she arrived on official visits.
Park faces multiple charges from abuse of power and coercion to bribery, and is the fourth former South Korean leader to be probed or jailed over corruption scandals.
Two former army-backed leaders who served in the 1980s to 1990s — Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo — served prison terms for bribery after they stepped down.
Roh Moo-Hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008, killed himself by jumping off a cliff after being probed by prosecutors over corruption allegations in 2009.
– Secret confidante –
Park has been named as an accomplice of her secret confidante at the heart of the scandal, which has also seen Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong arrested and charged with bribery.
The friend, Choi Soon-Sil, is accused of using her presidential ties to force local firms including Samsung to “donate” nearly $70 million to non-profit foundations she allegedly used for personal gain.
Park is accused of offering governmental favours to the business tycoons who enriched Choi, including Lee.
The former leader is also accused of letting Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, handle a wide range of state affairs including nomination of top officials or diplomats.
Park also allegedly forced her aides to create a “blacklist” of thousands of artists who had voiced criticism of her to stop offering their projects state subsidies.
Prosecutors have accused her of pressing local businesses including Hyundai and steelmaker Posco to award lucrative deals to firms or individuals linked with Choi.
The ties between the two women stem from Park’s relationship with Choi’s late father, Choi Tae-Min — a religious figure who was a close mentor to Park until his death in 1994.
The seven-times-married founder of a cult-like group 40 years Park’s senior was also accused of using his ties with Park to squeeze money from local businesses for decades.
The ex-president has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and blamed Choi for abusing their friendship. Choi is on trial for charges including abuse of power and coercion.
Park won the presidential vote in 2012 largely thanks to the popularity of her late father among the aged, conservative voters who benefited from the rapid growth under his iron-fisted rule from 1961 to 1979, but the scandal sent her once-bulletproof support ratings to record lows.
A vote to elect her successor will be held on May 9 with Moon Jae-In, her rival in 2012 and a former leader of the main liberal opposition Democratic Party, leading polls by large margins.