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Tens of thousands of protesters gather in the historic Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Saturday, Nov. 5,  2016, demanding that scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye step down.

Tens of thousands of protesters gather in the historic Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, demanding that scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye step down. (Kim Gamel/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — Tens of thousands of South Koreans massed in a historic square in Seoul to demand their president step down over a scandal that has plunged the country into political turmoil with astonishing speed.

Saturday’s protest was a resounding rejection of President Park Geun-hye’s speech the day before in which she took blame for the latest crisis to plague her government and asked for forgiveness.

Instead protesters pumped colorful banners saying “Park Geun-hye out” into the air and applauded as speakers on a stage called for her ouster. Police wearing bright yellow vests and riot gear used buses and trucks to control the crowd gathered in front of an old palace gate on Gwanghwamun Square.

Park, who has just over a year left in office before elections scheduled for December 2017, faces growing anger over allegations that she allowed longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to wield influence over government policies despite having no official position.

Choi, the 60-year-old daughter of a late religious cult founder, has been arrested on suspicion of using her connections to the president to pressure large South Korean companies to give $70 million to her two foundations.

In her second televised speech in just over a week, an emotional Park vowed to accept a direct investigation into her actions “if necessary,” but did not comment on specific allegations or promise any concrete actions.

Park, 64, also tried to tap into the sympathy that helped propel her to office. Her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his own spy chief in 1979. Her mother was killed during an earlier attempt on her father’s life.

The president, who is not married and is estranged from her siblings, said loneliness had pushed her to spend more time with Choi.

In a speech last week, she acknowledged that she had relied on Choi for help editing presidential speeches and other undefined "public relations" issues.

"Living alone, it was difficult to find people who could help me with the personal things I needed to get done, so I began receiving help from Choi Soon-sil with whom I had a long relationship," she said Friday.

But she denied speculation that she had “fallen into worshipping cult religions or that shamanistic rituals were held at the presidential Blue House.”

The speech has failed to quell the growing anger. A national poll released Friday had Park’s approval rating at 5 percent, the lowest for any South Korean president since the country became democratic in the late 1980s following decades of military dictatorship.

“President Park had many great mistakes and she had shaman religion,” protester Tae Hong Na said, sitting near the statue of King Sejong, remembered for inventing the Korean alphabet. “She has just one year remaining as president, but we want her to fall down from power now.”

In truth, though, it’s a tricky time for a resignation and the leading opposition parties have stopped short of calling for that or impeachment, likely worried that could negatively impact next year’s election.

Park has fired eight aides and nominated three new top Cabinet officials, including the prime minister, but opposition parties have rejected the moves, pressing her to cede more authority as a lame duck.

If Park were to resign, South Korean laws call for an election to pick a new president within 60 days.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel


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