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(News Focus) Parties engaged in infighting over Choi Soon-sil scandal

All Headlines 20:02 November 04, 2016

By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's ruling and opposition blocs are engaged in an internal struggle as their lawmakers are calling for widely different actions in response to the scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye's confidante accused of influence peddling, observers said Friday.

Prosecutors here have been looking into the scandal that involves Choi Soon-sil, a 60-year-old friend of the chief executive, who is suspected of illicitly exercising power. She is also suspected of diverting funds from two public foundations established through donations from local conglomerates.

The scandal has dealt the harshest blow to Park's presidency, with her approval rating crashing to 5 percent as of this week, according to local pollster Gallup Korea, marking a 12-percentage-point fall from a week earlier.

With the presidential election slated for next year, local parties have been busy finding ways to handle the unfolding crisis and win over the public's support.

Thanks in part to the scandal, the main opposition Democratic Party's approval rating hit 31 percent, beating the ruling Saenuri Party's 18 percent this week. The minor opposition People's Party posted 13 percent.

Lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party bow their heads in apology for the scandal involving President Park Geun-hye's confidante at the National Assembly on Nov. 4, 2016 (Yonhap)

Saenuri, moreover, is suffering from an internal power struggle between two rival factions, with one supportive of Park while the other is taking a more aggressive and critical stance.

"The president delivered an appeal with sincerity. She expressed a strong willingness to find out the truth and prevent similar cases in the future by putting down her authority as the president and cooperating with the investigation," said Rep. Yeom Dong-yeol, the spokesperson for Saenuri.

Rep. Lee Jung-hyun, the head of Saenuri, supported Park's speech, especially the request to hold meetings with the heads of opposition parties.

Despite Saenuri's official statements, lawmakers often categorized as "the non-Park" faction continued to claim that Park's announcements are not enough to settle the crisis, adding the existing party leadership must step down.

"The president never said she will take a backseat on state affairs," a non-Park official said on condition of anonymity. "Park is only saying it was Choi who broke the law, and the president will only take moral responsibility."

Rep. Na Kyung-won of Saenuri also said Park failed to properly understand public sentiment, adding she should have spoken more about sharing her authority and expanding cooperation with the National Assembly.

Other key officials from Saenuri, who are often cited as potential contenders for next year's race, also expressed concern over the existing party leadership as well as Park's speech.

Members of the Democratic Party watche President Park Geun-hye's speech on TV from their office in Seoul on Nov. 4, 2016 (Yonhap)

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Nam Kyung-pil urged Park to step aside from state affairs.

On Wednesday, the presidential office announced Kim Byong-joon, who served as a policy secretary to late President Roh Moon-hyun, as South Korea's prime minister-designate amid the rising call for the Cabinet reshuffle.

While Park apparently tapped a liberal figure to soothe the public's anger, the opposition parties agreed to boycott the nomination hearing, adding the presidential office should have consulted parliament first.

Although the two opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the People's Party, seem to be joining forces to seek countermeasures, political pundits said there is also discord, especially as the two may compete against each other in the upcoming presidential race.

Following Park's speech made on Friday, the Democratic Party said it will step up its protest against the government, while the smaller People's Party opted for a more wait-and-see stance.

"Unless our demand is met, we will stage a protest for the resignation of the administration," Rep. Choo Mi-ae, the head of the Democratic Party said, urging Park to drop Kim's nomination.

In contrast to the main opposition's aggressive reaction, the People's Party agreed with some parts of the speech, adding it is open to talks with the president.

"We welcome that Park said she will cooperate with the investigation and accept a special probe by an independent counsel," said Rep. Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the People's Party. "We cheer Park's remarks on how she is willing to take responsibility for everything."

"Although we still doubt if Park will win the public's support, we will continue to watch the people's responses," the party whip added.

While the two opposition parties are refraining from officially demanding the resignation of the president, some of their lawmakers are making independent moves, calling for Park to step down.

On Thursday, 31 lawmakers from the Democratic Party openly demanded Park's resignation.

colin@yna.co.kr
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