South Korea’s Park charged with bribery and abuse of power

Impeached ex-president, also accused of leaking secrets, could face lengthy prison spell

South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye has been formally charged with bribery and abuse of power, setting the stage for a trial that could potentially send her to prison for life.

While most international attention has been focused on nuclear tensions with the North, South Korea's domestic political situation has been turbulent for months with major challenges such as retaliation by China over the deployment of the US missile defence system THAAD and slowing growth in Asia's fourth-biggest economy.

Since her impeachment, South Korea has been run by a caretaker government, a difficult prospect at a time of great uncertainty. The country's acting president and prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn met US vice-president Mike Pence on Monday to discuss growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The former president was taken into custody on March 31st after millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest. She was impeached late last year and now stands accused of abuse of power, coercion, bribery and leaking government secrets, prosecutors said.


Close friend

Ms Park is alleged to have colluded with her shamanistic adviser and close friend Choi Soon-sil to pressure the country's powerful chaebol industrial conglomerates to donate a total of 77.4 billion won (€60 million) to two non-profit foundations, and of soliciting bribes from two of the country's biggest companies, Lotte and SK.

Her indictment marks the latest episode in a remarkable fall from grace for the first woman to reach the highest office in South Korea. The eldest daughter of strongman dictator Park Chung-hee, Ms Park’s election in December 2012 brought her back to the Blue House where she spent her formative years and served as acting first lady after her mother Yook Young-soo was assassinated in 1974. Her father was slain in 1979.

Ms Park has denied all the charges during her five rounds of questioning in jail, saying she only got help from Ms Choi to edit some presidential speeches and public relations advice.

Filed charges

The prosecutor's office in Seoul's central district also filed charges against ex-presidential aide Woo Byung-woo and Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin over allegations tied to Ms Park's case. The heir to Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, has already been indicted and is awaiting a separate criminal trial over charges that Ms Park was given bribes in exchange for government backing of a 2015 merger.

Ms Park’s trial is expected to begin after the May 9th presidential election to minimise the political impact it could have on the election campaign which officially began earlier on Monday.

Leading candidates in the election include Moon Jae-in, who was runner-up to Park in 2012, and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo.

She will have to face judges in prison garb and bound with rope, and the bribery charge could mean life imprisonment. The trial could last six months.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing