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Mass protest demands resignation of S. Korean president

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fill the historic Gwanghamun Square and surrounding streets in Seoul on Saturday, Nov. 19, for the fourth week in a row. They’re calling on President Park Geun-hye to resign over an influence peddling and corruption scandal involving a close friend.

KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 19, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans waved candles and chanted as they rallied in Seoul for the fourth week in a row to step up pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign over a bizarre influence-peddling scandal.

The crisis has plunged South Korea into political uncertainty at a critical time as the government is dealing with a rising nuclear and missile threat from North Korea as well as apprehension over U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s potential Asian strategy.

So far the weekly protests have been peaceful despite the swelling numbers, and many people came Saturday with children in tow.

“I would like to show my baby that the master of this country is the people. This is not North Korea but South Korea, and we are a democracy,” Kim Daeman, a computer programmer said as his 14-month-old held a plastic candle. “We will keep holding the rallies until she steps down.”

Park is accused of letting longtime friend Choi Soon-sil wield undue influence over everything from government policies to wardrobe choices. Choi is under arrest on suspicion of using her connections to extort money from large corporations that she used for her foundations and even her daughter’s equestrian training.

The president, who has just over a year left in her single term in office, has shown no sign that she is considering resignation. Instead, she emerged from a hiatus last week to name new vice foreign and culture ministers and announced she will attend a trilateral summit in Tokyo next month.

But her reticence and her refusal to agree to be questioned by prosecutors last week despite a promise to cooperate have only fueled the anger on the streets. Rallies also were scheduled for several other cities.

“Having a president like Park Geun-hye is a shame,” said Yoo Byung-hun, a 57-year-old businessman who was attending his second rally. “I don’t believe the prosecutors and politicians are doing their job so the people have to do it for them.”

Under Friday, opposition leaders had stopped short of calling for her to quit, presumably preferring to reduce her to a figurehead while they prepared for the December 2017 vote.

Under the constitution, a resignation would force new elections within 60 days. That would give the fractured opposition little time to prepare, with no clear favorite to replace her.

Thousands of the president’s supporters also gathered near the city’s main train station Saturday.

Many said they believed the allegations against the president were part of a North Korean conspiracy. Others said Park was democratically elected and should be allowed to complete her term.

“We need to protect President Park even though she made a very small mistake,” said Lee Heung-jae, a 70-year-old retiree. “We don’t need a revolution. We need a democracy.”

Park admitted to letting Choi edit some speeches and has apologized twice in televised addresses. That has done little to quell the growing protest movement.

Prosecutors also are in negotiations with an attorney in a bid to question Park. The president has immunity from prosecution except in cases of treason, but she can be investigated.

Democratic Party chief Choo Mi-ae urged Park to “please step down” in remarks Friday reported by South Korean media. She also raised the possibility that opposition leaders would pursue impeachment proceedings if the president didn’t heed the calls.

Choo also cited “information making the rounds that the president is preparing martial law as a last resort.”

Park’s spokesman Jung Youn-kuk responded that the comments were “deeply regrettable.”

“Such political demagoguery is much too irresponsible to be made by a responsible leader of the largest opposition party,” he told reporters at the presidential Blue House. “We strongly urge everyone to refrain from making comments instigating further confusion.”

The allegation is especially troubling for Park, whose father was the dictator Park Chung-hee. He led the country for decades until he was assassinated in 1979.

chang.kyong@stripes.com
gamel.kim@stripes.com

Twitter: @kimgamel

 

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fill the historic Gwanghamun Square and surrounding streets in Seoul on Saturday, Nov. 19, for the fourth week in a row. Many brought their children as they calling on President Park Geun-hye to resign over an influence peddling and corruption scandal involving a close friend.
KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

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