South Korean legislators have questioned the woman at the centre of the impeachment crisis surrounding President Park Geun-hye, after she previously shunned a televised hearing at her detention centre.
Choi Soon-sil, a long-time confidante of Park, has ignored several summons to appear before a special parliamentary committee investigating a corruption scandal that prompted Park’s impeachment earlier this month.
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So the MPs came to her, with the committee organising a special hearing on Monday morning – with TV cameras – inside the Seoul Detention Centre where Choi is awaiting trial on charges of extortion and abuse of power.
Choi said sorry when questioned by the special parliamentary committee, according to Sohn Hye-won, an opposition Democratic Party MP who visited her and later told a committee hearing what she had said.
Choi denied key allegations against her, including colluding with Park to pressure big businesses into paying money to foundations she controlled, Sohn said.
“I am sorry to the people of the country,” Choi was quoted as saying by Sohn.
Choi initially refused to leave her cell, but eventually agreed to meet eight selected members of the committee behind closed doors.
Citing the MPs, Yonhap news agency reported that Choi denied all her charges, including allegations that she colluded with Park and set up two dubious foundations that were later used for her personal gain.
Choi, however, said she was prepared to serve a life sentence and apologised to the public for “causing confusion”, according to Yonhap.
She said she was feeling “dizzy” both physically and mentally and refused to answer most of the MPs’ questions during the meeting that lasted nearly three hours, Yonhap said.
Two former top presidential aides being held in a separate facility also refused to appear for questioning.
There are no legal grounds for forcing witnesses to attend a parliamentary hearing, although they can be held in contempt and face a maximum five-year prison term for not doing so.
The National Assembly voted to impeach Park earlier this month, stripping away her substantial executive powers.
President in name
Park remains president in name, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court on whether to ratify parliament’s impeachment motion.
Earlier on Monday, prosecutors seized documents during an early-morning raid on the central Seoul residence of Kim Ki-choon, who served as Park’s chief of staff between 2013 and 2015.
Kim has a long association with Park’s family, having also served her father – the late military general Park Chung-hee, who led the country for 18 years after seizing power in a 1961 military coup.
Those close ties have led to allegations that he must have been aware of the inappropriate influence that Choi – dubbed a “female Rasputin” by the local media – wielded over the president.
Park allegedly leaked confidential documents to her friend, and allowed her to meddle in state affairs – including the appointments of senior officials.