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(3rd LD) Protests intensify as parliament moves to impeach Park

All Headlines 22:55 November 26, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with details throughout)
By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Nov. 26 (Yonhap) -- More than a million protesters gathered in central Seoul on Saturday in the fifth consecutive weekly rally, organizers said, as parliament takes steps to impeach President Park Geun-hye after state prosecutors accused her of being an accomplice in the influence-peddling and corruption scandal linked to her confidante.

With the opposition parties planning to put the impeachment motion up for a vote in early December, local police said around 1,500 liberal and progressive civic groups have organized a massive rally around Gwanghwamun Square calling for Park to step down.

Organizers claimed a record-high 1.5 million joined the rally despite cold weather and snow, higher than the some 600,000 participants observed last week, and exceeding the 1 million who protested two weeks ago. Throughout the country, organizers said some 1.9 million joined in calling for Park's resignation.

Police, on the other hand, estimated about 270,000 participants were on hand in Seoul, with no significant collisions or arrests taking place so far. While previous protests ended peacefully, police said they deployed some 25,000 officers to deal with any problems.

The protesters also marched within 200 meters of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae holding banners with messages such as "Arrest President Park" and "Surrender Now." Organizers had initially planned to hold the rally near Cheong Wa Dae deep into the night, but the court banned the move allowing the protesters to stay there only till 5:30 p.m., citing safety issues.

Protesters hold up candles at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul on Nov. 26, 2016, to call for President Park Geun-hye's resignation. Park has been under pressure to step down over a nation-rocking political scandal involving her and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil. (Yonhap)

At 8:00 p.m., participants held a blackout by putting out their candles, with ordinary citizens at home or in offices being asked to turn off their lights in a symbol of protest.

The rally marks the fifth of its kind after the outbreak of the scandal in which Choi Soon-sil, who has been Park's friend for more than 40 years, is suspected of exerting influence on state affairs despite holding no official position in the incumbent administration.

South Koreans have been expressing anger over allegations that Choi exerted influence in the business, cultural and sports areas.

Reflecting the sentiment, Gallup Korea said Park's approval rating fell to another record-low level of 4 percent this week, down 1 percentage point from a week earlier.

"This is my first time participating in a rally," said Chang Hae-jin, an 18-year-old who took the national college entrance exam earlier this month. "When I was studying for the exam, I felt sorry because I could not do anything. Park needs to speak to the people and should not hide like this."

Another participant, who visited the venue with two children, said she wanted to make the country righteous, especially amid the allegations that Choi's daughter got admitted to a major university unfairly.

"I wish my children could live in a country where justice prevails," Lee Ji-hyun, a 43-year-old, said.

Other politicians from the opposition bloc joined the event, urging the ruling Saenuri Party to take part in the impeachment motion.

"Saenuri must promptly cooperate with the impeachment move that the three opposition parties have agreed to," said Rep. Choo Mi-ae, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, adding Park should promptly step down instead of engaging in a legal battle.

A successful passage of the motion calls for support from at least 200 lawmakers, meaning the opposition bloc needs to persuade at least 28 members from the Saenuri party to break rank. Observers said some 40 lawmakers from the ruling party may vote for an impeachment, although efforts may be made by the Saenuri leadership to prevent this from happening.

Protesters approach within 200 meters of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Nov. 26, 2016, to call for President Park Geun-hye's resignation. (Yonhap)

Local observers had predicted more participants would take part in the latest rally after prosecutors claimed Park was complicit in the scandal, which led opposition parties to officially seek the president's impeachment. The main opposition Democratic Party said it will put the motion up for a vote no later than Dec. 9.

Park's attorney rejected the prosecution's investigation results, claiming prosecutors lacked "fairness and credibility" and even hinted at political bias.

The presidential office blasted the allegations raised by the prosecutors as being based on wishful thinking with no basis in fact and said Park will clear her name in due course. The chief executive has rejected any wrongdoing, stressing her intent to create the two nonprofit foundations -- Mir and the K-Sports -- at the center of the scandal was to help South Korean culture and sports. She stressed the foundations were established with "pure motives" and had nothing to do with giving favors. Park, however, conceded that those close to her had abused the trust she placed in them.

If the impeachment motion is passed, the Constitutional Court will review the case. It took 63 days for the court to dismiss the impeachment motion against late former President Roh Moo-hyun.

In a separate gathering, a group of Park supporters converged at Seoul Station earlier in the day to protest moves to impeach Park, with a banner read arguing that "Impeaching Park would make South Korea a communist country."

"Park's father, Park Chung-hee, has modernized our country. Previous administrations have only focused on helping North Korea," said Lee Kae-yong, an 80-year-old participant of the gathering. "It is Korean culture to repay debt. We need to protect Park considering what her father did for our country."

Next week, the parliament will kick off the parliamentary investigation of the scandal separately from the prosecutors' probe, starting by questioning the cultural and justice ministries. It will also investigate the presidential office and other organizations later in December.

The special committee carrying out the parliamentary investigation said it has decided to call in major business leaders, including Samsung Group's heir-apparent Lee Jae-yong, along with the heads of LG Group, Hyundai Motor Group and SK Group, in December. Samsung is also suspected of providing favors to Choi's daughter.

Local conglomerates were reportedly requested to chip in for the establishment of Mir and K-Sports, with investigators suspecting Choi tried to siphon off money from these entities.

A protester holds up a candle at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul on Nov. 26, 2016, while attending a rally calling for President Park Geun-hye's resignation. (Yonhap)

Sources said Park is watching the rally on TV at the presidential office, with her aides holding meetings to discuss developments.

"We are keeping close tabs on the protest and the opinions of the people," an official from Cheong Wa Dae said, adding they are discussing ways to prepare for future events.

A handful of conservative politicians joined the rally. Gyeonggi Gov. Nam Kyung-pil, who left Saenuri earlier in protest over the scandal, was present, along with Oh Se-hoon, the former mayor of Seoul.


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