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(3rd LD) Choi Soon-sil, woman at center of political scandal, returns to S. Korea

All Headlines 15:58 October 30, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with reaction from political parties, Park's meeting with civic leaders in paras 17-21, 26; Minor edits)

SEOUL, Oct. 30 (Yonhap) -- Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of President Park Geun-hye, suspected of peddling influence and interfering in state affairs, returned home Sunday after nearly two months of hiding in Europe, prosecutors said.

"Choi Soon-sil voluntarily returned to South Korea at 7:30 a.m. through a British Airways flight from Heathrow Airport in Britain," a senior prosecutor said.

This photo provided by a reader shows Choi Soon-sil walking through Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 30, 2016, after arriving from London. (Yonhap)

Following her arrival, Choi's legal representative Lee Kyung-jae met with reporters in Seoul and said she returned home to undergo questioning by state prosecutors, adding she will fully cooperate with the investigation.

Choi, who was originally known to be in Germany, left from London in order to avoid the media, according to the lawyer.

Her daughter Chung Yoo-ra did not return with Choi, according to Lee. Chung is suspected of receiving unlawful favors in regards to her admission and academic affairs at Ewha Womans University, one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

The lawyer said he has asked the investigators to delay Choi's summons for about a day to give her a rest as she is not in good condition due to poor health and the long journey. Prosecutors said they will not call in Choi on Sunday.

"She conveyed deepest apologies for causing frustration and despondency to the public through her (actions)," Lee said.

Still, the attorney declined to comment on the allegations raised against her.

The woman, who holds no governmental post, is suspected of meddling in state affairs by using her decades of friendship with the president, as well as siphoning off funds from two nonprofit organizations where local companies were allegedly pressured to donate some tens of billions of won.

The return came a day after prosecutors raided homes of presidential aides suspected of being involved in the process, as the investigators accelerated their probe into the case.

They also attempted to raid the offices of the aides, but the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae refused them entry, citing the need to protect state secrets.

Choi Soon-sil's lawyer Lee Kyung-jae talks to reporters at his office in Seoul on Oct. 30, 2016. (Yonhap)

Under the law guiding searches, Cheong Wa Dae, which holds top military secrets, reserves the right to block entry of investigators to protect classified information from being accessed by people without top security clearance.

Prosecutors said they attempted to raid the offices a second time Sunday morning but were again denied entry.

Instead of allowing the investigators to directly search the offices, the presidential office is known to be providing documents demanded by the prosecution, which it did on Saturday as well.

Prosecutors, however, earlier said the documents provided on the first raid attempt fell short of their requirements and were rather "insignificant materials."

While defying the raid, a number of staff members at the presidential office said the allegations surrounding Choi should be clearly sorted out. Cheong Wa Dae did not issue an official statement on Choi's return.

Tourists pose for photos in front of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Oct. 29, 2016, amid rising tensions over prosecutors' attempts to raid the presidential office. (Yonhap)

All political parties, meanwhile, urged the prosecution to speed up the investigation, with some lawmakers criticizing it for not immediately arresting Choi.

Rep. Choo Mi-ae, the chief of the main opposition Democratic Party, called on the presidential office to accept the raid and demanded the prosecution put Choi under custody.

Gov. Nam Kyung-pil of Gyeonggi Province, affiliated with the ruling Saenuri Party, also voiced the need to arrest Choi.

"She is the main culprit of this case, and I wonder if the (prosecution) would have done the same for any other ordinary suspects," he said. "People say it is already a privilege to give her time."

Rep. Park Jie-won, the interim leader of the minor opposition People's Party, said the party will review every measure possible if the investigation is not carried out thoroughly.

Opposition lawmakers visit the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office on Oct. 30, 2016, to demand an immediate arrest of Choi Soon-sil, whose whereabouts are unknown after returning home from Europe earlier in the day. (Yonhap)

On Tuesday, the president apologized in a nationally televised address over allegations raised against her and the confidante, admitting to the leak of dozens of presidential speeches to Choi before they were made public.

Choi is a daughter of Park's late mentor Choi Tae-min, a leader of a questionable religious group who died in 1994. Park is known to have developed a friendship with the Choi family after her mother and then-first lady Yook Young-soo was assassinated in 1974.

The latest scandal has sent Park's approval rating to 17 percent, the lowest point since her inauguration in February 2013, according to local pollster Gallup Korea.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters took to the streets in downtown Seoul, demanding her resignation.

The president has not issued any official statement regarding the scandal since Tuesday's apology. She is known to have had a meeting with about a dozen leaders from the civic society behind closed doors Sunday to gather opinions on how to deal with the situation.

Faced with growing calls from the public to take responsibility for the scandal, Park is widely expected to replace some of her closest aides in a reshuffle early next week.

This undated captured Yonhap News TV image shows President Park Geun-hye (L) and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, believed to have meddled in key state affairs in an unprecedented influence-peddling scandal. (Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr
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