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(2nd LD) Hundreds of thousands gather in Seoul to demand Park's resignation

All Headlines 22:35 November 12, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with new numbers in lead, 2nd para; ADDS more details, photos)
By Song Sang-ho and Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Nov. 12 (Yonhap) -- Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Seoul on Saturday, in numbers not seen in decades, for the latest massive rally to demand President Park Geun-hye's resignation over the growing scandal involving her confidante.

Over 1 million people joined the candlelight rally at Gwanghwamun Plaza in downtown Seoul as of 7:30 p.m., according to organizers. Police said 260,000 people gathered, which surpasses the 170,000 they had originally expected.

It is the largest rally to be held in South Korea this century to date, comparable to one that took place in 1987. Over 1 million Koreans took the streets at that time, leading the then Chun Doo-hwan military regime to accept their calls to adopt a direct presidential election system.

The previous record was set in June 2008 when 80,000 people, based on police calculations, turned out for a rally in Seoul against the government decision to resume U.S. beef imports. Organizers then put the number at 700,000.

Police said they deployed some 25,000 officers in riot gear on Saturday to prevent potential violence.

Major streets near Gwanghwamun were packed with citizens -- men and women, young and old -- holding banners that said "Step down Park Geun-hye!" and chanting slogans against the current administration.

Three opposition parties joined the rally, along with some potential presidential hopefuls, including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon of the Democratic Party.

A citizen holds a picket that says "Park Geun-hye Out" in front of barricades made of police buses in central Seoul on Nov. 12, 2016, during a massive rally to demand the president's resignation over the latest influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante. (Yonhap)

A 72-year-old housewife Lee Kwang-ja and her husband were among the protesters there with their families and friends.

"I was born in 1944 and I have lived through the democratization of this country which I was pretty proud about," Lee told Yonhap News Agency.

"But now, I feel so embarrassed as an older generation. I cannot look at these young folks," she said, referring to students who took part in the protest.

For Lee Joon-hyeong, medical student at Seoul's Yonsei University, it was the second time for him to come out to the protests, following the one he took part in last week to demand Park's resignation.

"We did not give Park power for certain people's personal gains," the 23-year-old claimed. "It is not a matter of a specific interest group, but of the fate of this country, which has to do with every single member of this society. I could not stay home."

Another participant, Ban, who asked to be identified only by her last name, was one of many parents who brought their kids to the massive rally, saying they wanted to show their kids history in the making.

"Instead of teaching them the values and history of this country through textbooks in classrooms, I wanted them to be here and feel them themselves," said the mother of two daughters in grades three and six in elementary school.

The rally was not only joined by Seoul citizens but also by those from other cities, who took buses and trains early in the morning to take part in the event. Most of the bus and train tickets heading to the capital city were sold out from early morning.

Protesters pack a street in downtown Seoul on Nov. 12, 2016, as they take part in an anti-government rally to demand President Park Geun-hye resign over an influence-peddling scandal implicating her longtime close friend Choi Soon-sil. (Yonhap)

Saturday's rally, organized by more than 1,500 liberal and progressive civic groups, was the third massive rally in downtown Seoul against the conservative Park, whose presidency has been shaken by the allegations of wrongdoing by her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil.

Prosecutors are looking into allegations that Choi meddled in various state affairs and amassed profits using her ties to the president. Choi, as well as two former presidential secretaries, have been put under detention for their alleged involvement in the wrongdoings.

Park has so far made a public apology twice but apparently failed to allay public outrage. She has not fully explained her role in the scandal, although legal experts point out this may be to prevent the impression that she is giving guidelines to the ongoing investigations, which could draw further backlash from her political opponents.

Investigators have been declining to comment on possible investigation into Park, and they have not suggested that she profitted from the scandal either.

Despite suspicions by many in the country that Park profitted from the scandal, no president since Roh Tae-woo, who left office in 1993, has ever been implicated in using the office to amass personal wealth, although relatives and close associates have done so, with many going to jail for their misdeeds.

Her approval rating remained at a record-low 5 percent this week, according to local pollster Gallup Korea.

During their rally, opposition parties ratcheted their pressure on the president to retreat from state affairs.

"If President Park continues to ignore the people's demands and orders, the Democratic Party will stage a full-blown campaign for the ousting of the (Park) administration," Choo Mi-ae, the party leader, said during the rally.

Democratic Party officials said that from next week, their main opposition party will push for a parliamentary probe into the political scandal as well as a special probe by an independent counsel. The ruling Saenuri Party has already said it wants to assign an independent prosecutor to the case.

Opposition presidential hopefuls, including Moon Jae-in, former chief of the Democratic Party, underscored that the president should take responsibility for the social and political turmoil sparked by the scandal.

"If President Park refuses to answer people's demands, our party and I cannot help but engage in a struggle to push for her resignation," Moon said. "Time is running out for Park."

Seoul Mayor Park called on other politicians including those from the ruling party to join the rally, which he said represented the "historical trends."

"Citizens' order is that Park, who trampled upon the Constitution, should bow out," the mayor claimed.

The minor opposition People's Party repeated its demand that Park renounce her ruling party membership to remain politically neutral, and allow a new premier, selected based on cross-party consensus, to form a new nonpartisan Cabinet.

"If the president makes a patriotic decision (to meet the party's demands), these citizens will return to their respective jobs," Park Jie-won, the party's interim leader, said.

The rally put the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on edge.

Presidential Chief of Staff Han Gwang-ok and other senior presidential secretaries held a series of internal meetings to discuss how to cope with the massive rally.

"As people are furious about scandal, we are carefully watching the situation and trying to figure out a way to deal with it," a presidential official told Yonhap News Agency, declining to be named.

The senior presidential aides plan to hold another meeting on Sunday to gauge public sentiment shown thorough Saturday's rally, and discuss ways to allay public anger over the sprawling scandal.

A protester holds up a candle during a rally in the city of Jeju on South Korea's largest island of the same name on Nov. 12, 2016, to call for President Park Geun-hye's resignation over an influence-peddling scandal implicating her longtime close friend Choi Soon-sil. (Yonhap)

After the gathering, the protesters began marching toward the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

Police originally banned them from entering the crossroads near Gyeongbokgung Station on subway line No. 3, which are thoroughfares to the presidential office, citing possible traffic inconvenience.

But a local court earlier on Saturday gave the nod for the protesters to march as planned up to the station, citing the freedom of assembly.

"Considering the specific purpose of this rally, which is to convey the public voice to the president, the meaning Sajik street and Yulgok street hold is significantly different from what they meant for other rallies," the Seoul Administrative Court said.

"The rally and march are not led by a specific interest group, but by the general public, ranging from adolescents and adults to the elderly who volunteered to take part," it added.

Regarding possible traffic inconveniences, the court said "it seems to be within the boundary the public can accept," adding the organizers and press have been fully informing the public of the planned march.

Some of the protesters managed to approach up to some 200 meters of the presidential office, but no major violence or injuries have been reported so far.

During the march, another big crowd remained at Gwanghwamun Plaza and took part in a cultural event where artists performed and citizens voiced their opinions regarding the latest scandal. Organizers said smaller events will continue overnight, though most of the participants are expected to head back home later in the evening.

On the same day, conservative civic groups also held rallies, saying the protesters are attempting to grab the authority by demanding Park's resignation, despite her willingness to face investigation herself.

"The opposition parties and the labor circle are mobilizing massive crowds," said Seo Kyung-seok, an executive of a conservative group. "They (the opposition and labor circle) are pro-North leftists who are attempting to ruin democracy."

Son Sang-dae, publisher of conservative media outlet Newstown, said Park should invoke martial law and arrest "communists."

Saturday's rallies were mostly attended by those in their 60s and 70s who have generally support Park in the past.

Protesters stage a candlelight rally in front of the Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul on Nov. 12, 2016, to call for President Park Geun-hye's resignation over an influence-peddling scandal implicating her longtime close friend Choi Soon-sil, as police block their way to the presidential office by setting up a barricade made of police buses. (Yonhap)


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