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Embattled Park to meet Korea opponent as impeachment calls grow
[SEOUL] President Park Geun-hye will meet with South Korea's main opposition leader Tuesday to find a solution to an influence-peddling scandal that triggered the country's biggest protest in decades last weekend.
Ms Park accepted the request for a meeting with Democratic Party of Korea leader Choo Mi-ae, her office said Monday in a text message, after a protest on Saturday drew hundreds of thousands of people and added to pressure on her to resign. This week she faces the prospect of becoming the first leader to be questioned by prosecutors while in office.
With about 16 months left in her single five-year term in power, Ms Park is showing no sign that she's getting ready to step down and lose her presidential immunity. Anger among the general public is prompting opposition politicians to become more vocal about impeaching her even though they lack the two-thirds majority needed in parliament to remove her.
"Ms Park is as good as already impeached in the minds of the public, but the question is how to formally bring it about," said Lee Eun-young, head of the Korea Society Opinion Institute and a former public opinion analyst for President Roh Moo-hyun, who survived an impeachment motion in 2004. "Even though more opposition members are calling for impeachment, that may just be a way of pressuring Ms Park to resign."
Ms Park's office said Sunday that she heard the voice of the people with a "heavy heart" after groups from farmers to youths took to the streets to demand her resignation. In a sign she intended to stay, Ms Park said she's trying to fulfill her responsibilities as president and put government affairs back on track. Ms Choo's party criticised Ms Park on Monday, saying she's defying public pressure to resign. The party also urged prosecutors to vigorously question Ms Park over her relationship with Choi Soon-sil, Ms Park's friend who received access to government documents.
Ms Choi has been charged with attempted fraud as investigators expand their probe into Ms Park, her aides and executives at some of South Korea's biggest companies, including Samsung Electronics Co and Hyundai Motor Co. Prosecutors said they expected to question Ms Park - as a witness rather than a suspect - on Tuesday or Wednesday. Her office said she needed time to arrange her schedule and find a lawyer. South Korea's constitution gives presidents immunity from prosecution.
While opposition parties have criticised Ms Park for the scandal, they have been cautious in calling for her removal. If she were to step down or be ousted it would trigger a presidential election in 60 days, and there's no guarantee an opposition candidate would win.
Among potential presidential candidates, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has seen his popularity wane, according to opinion surveys. While Mr Ban has not announced his candidacy, he has been touted as a potential contender for Saenuri. His term at the UN expires at the end of the year.
Another top contender is Moon Jae-in, the runner-up in the 2012 presidential election and a former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea. Mr Moon was at Saturday's protest, saying he wanted to send "a stern warning" to Ms Park and her party.
Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of the nation's second-biggest opposition People's Party, went onto the streets on Saturday to seek signatures for a petition calling on Ms Park to resign.
Even former supporters are turning against her. Kim Moo-sung, ex-leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, wrote on social media on Sunday that it was time to impeach Ms Park. Opposition parties control a combined 165 of 300 seats in the national assembly.
"We're facing this serious and hard-to-heal situation because the president, who should be committed to defending the Constitution, is suspected to be the body of the Constitution violation," he wrote.
The turmoil could lead to months of political distraction and, even if Ms Park sees out her term, will likely mean protracted jostling well ahead of the next election. The scandal has deprived South Korea of strong leadership as economic growth slumps and some of its biggest companies suffer embarrassing setbacks.
The Saturday protest produced a scene reminiscent of the 1987 pro-democracy rally that led the country's military leaders to adopt direct presidential elections. Protests against Ms Park have grown since she first apologised last month for allowing friend Ms Choi to access government documents.
"Her resignation would effectively mean that she's open to be investigated under arrest," said Ms Park Tae-woo, a commentator and professor at Korea University's Institute of Sustainable Development.
"If I were her, I'd find it very disturbing."