South Korean MPs are holding a hearing to investigate why impeached President Park Geun-hye went “missing” during a major ferry disaster in 2014 – the latest trouble to hit the pressured leader.
Seven hours elapsed between the first news reports that a ferry carrying hundreds of children was sinking off the nation’s southern coast in April 2014 and her first TV appearance that day.
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The tragedy – which claimed the lives of 304 people, many of them teenagers from one high school – continues to gnaw at the nation’s consciousness, especially because a rescue effort was widely seen as botched.
A lack of information on Park’s whereabouts and actions at the time has fuelled conspiracy theories. The theories have re-emerged during an investigation into an influence-peddling scandal that looks likely to bring down her presidency.
A parliamentary panel looking into the allegations is holding a hearing specifically on the missing seven hours, and the incident was included by parliament in a motion to impeach Park earlier this month.
Last month, more than two years after the disaster, Park’s office published a page on its website detailing what reports the president received and when, on the day of the sinking.
“We’ve repeatedly explained, two years ago and since then, that she had been receiving reports about the Sewol incident all throughout the day and gave instructions either by phone or written reports,” Kim Dong-jo, a Blue House spokesman, told the Reuters news agency before the hearing.
The official timeline details exactly when Park received reports or gave orders. The timeline, though, does not reveal where Park was or what she was doing as she gave those orders.
Botox and Placenta injections
Park Young-sun, of the opposition Democratic Party, held up a placard at last week’s hearing showing two photos of Park, before and after the day of the disaster.
The photos focused on Park’s eyes, which she said appeared to have undergone anti-wrinkle treatment. Park’s office has denied she had been receiving Botox injections at the time
“There have been all sorts of allegations in the two years since that ferry disaster about where she might have been, what she might have been doing, some of them related to potential medical procedures,” Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Seoul, said.
“There was also an allegation last week that she was having a haircut.”
The Hankyoreh newspaper reported that a hairdresser from a salon in Gangnam, a glitzy neighbourhood in southern Seoul, had spent 90 minutes styling Park’s hair during the seven hour period.
SBS, a local broadcaster, said Park had asked the hairdresser to make her hair look messy.
Park’s office confirmed the visit, but said the appointment lasted just 20 minutes, during which the president received official briefings as she waited for the completion of a security sweep of the situation room in a government complex two kilometres away.
“Another allegation was that she had been administered a sedative,” Al Jazeera’s Fawcett said.
“Today at the hearing, we heard from a doctor who had regular access to her presidential residence. He admitted that he did administer hormone injections to President Park, injections including placenta material, but didn’t confirm anything about the use of sedatives.”
Park was also forced to deny rumours that she was participating in a ritual to mark the anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min, the founder of a Christian sect to which she had ties.
During the second of three televised apologies over the crisis, she said: “There are rumours that I am in a cult, or that there was a performance of a ritual in the Blue House, but this is not true at all.”