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Korean president faces tough week as impeachment risk rises
[SEOUL] Park Geun Hye faces the prospect of becoming the first South Korean president to be grilled by investigators while in office, as opposition lawmakers edge toward trying to impeach her over an influence-peddling scandal.
A protest march on Saturday that drew hundreds of thousands - the biggest rally in at least several decades - has added to pressure on Ms Park to step down over the furore. With 16 months left in her single five-year term in power, and with no sign Ms Park is readying to resign and lose her presidential immunity, opposition politicians are becoming more vocal about moving against her.
Responding to the weekend protests, which saw groups from farmers to youths take to the streets to demand her resignation, Ms Park's office said she had heard the voice of the people with a "heavy heart". Prosecutors have said they intend to question her this week over Choi Soon Sil, Ms Park's friend who received access to government documents.
"What we saw yesterday was a calm but freezing cold anger, which is scarier than the series of hot pro-democracy protests Korea saw in the 1980s," said Rhee Jong Hoon, a political commentator and research fellow at Myongji University, speaking of the Saturday protests.
"I think she seriously has to consider stepping down now. If she doesn't, there is a good chance future protests will go wild."
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, given the lack of popular support for their parties.
Still, given the extent of public disquiet against Ms Park, they may have no choice but to move toward impeaching her.
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.
"The only way to address this confusion any earlier is for Park to step down," he posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.
Even former supporters are turning against her. Kim Moo Sung, former 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, short of the two-thirds majority needed to impeach her.
"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.
Hundreds of thousands of people filled downtown Seoul on Saturday, 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.
Moon Jae In, the runner-up in the 2012 presidential election and a former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, was at Saturday's protest, saying he wanted to send "a stern warning" to Ms Park and her party.
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, and no prior president has been investigated while in office.
"Her resignation would effectively mean that she's open to be investigated under arrest, and if I were her, I'd find it very disturbing," said Park Tae Woo, a commentator and professor at Korea University's Institute of Sustainable Development. The president may seek to meet with the ruling and opposition parties to try and broker some sort of agreement, the professor said.
Ms Park's record-low popularity - now in the single digits - may give the opposition another reason to move toward impeachment.
Among potential presidential candidates, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has seen his popularity wane to 21 per cent from 27 per cent a month earlier, while Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae Myung's approval nudged up to 8 per cent from 5 per cent, according to a Gallup Korea poll Friday.
While Mr Ban has not announced his candidacy, he has been touted as a potential contender for Saenuri. Meanwhile Mr Lee has called for Ms Park's resignation.
There would likely be a large number of swing voters if a presidential election comes early, said Mr Rhee from Myongji University.
"Note that the opposition parties are not fully absorbing the losses of Saenuri, so it really depends on how each party meets public expectations in reacting to this situation," he said.