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(LEAD) Park, independent counsel consider 2nd or 3rd week of Feb. for direct questioning

All Headlines 19:53 January 31, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS details of probe into blacklist in paras 7-9)

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's attorneys and the independent counsel team are considering holding face-to-face questioning of the impeached leader over her corruption allegations as early as next week, a presidential aide said Tuesday.

The two sides have been coordinating the date and venue for the direct inquiry as the probe team is accelerating its investigation into a highly charged scandal involving the chief executive and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil.

"No decision has yet to be made, but the two sides have narrowed gaps a lot over the date (for questioning)," an aide to Park told Yonhap News Agency over the phone, declining to be named.

"I understand the two sides are discussing the issue of holding the questioning on the second or third week of February," he added.

The probe team, led by Independent Counsel Park Young-soo, has repeatedly suggested that it needs to pose questions to Park by early February.

Park is suspected of colluding with Choi in extorting money and favors from large conglomerates such as Samsung Group. She is also alleged to have allowed Choi to meddle in important state affairs.

The special prosecutors also concluded that Park had allegedly colluded with her former chief of staff Kim Ki-choon and former culture minister Cho Yoon-sun in making a blacklist of artists who were critical of the government.

Park was cited as an "accomplice" in an investigation into former senior officials at the culture ministry and presidential office over the blacklist of artists, according to a copy of indictment against them, obtained by Yonhap News Agency.

Both Kim and Cho were arrested on charges of abuse of power and perjury.

Park has persistently refuted all charges leveled against her and even hinted there may be a concerted move to remove her from office. She recently called charges of corruption and collusion "preposterous and colossal lies" and claimed that the media and her political opponents have spread falsehoods that gave the public distorted information.

The team has been pressed for time, as its initial investigation period is due to end on Feb. 28. The period can be extended once by a month with consent from Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn.

While differences over the date have been reduced, the two sides still remain apart over the venue, the source said. Several places have been floated such as the Korea Banking Institute and an annex to the central government complex, both of which are located just hundreds of meters away from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

Observers say that Park may employ a two-track approach next month -- firming up the legal rationale for her denial of corruption charges while seeking to create a turn in public sentiment that has remained hostile towards her.

Since the start of this year, Park hosted a press meeting and an interview with a conservative journalist in an apparent move to ease public fury over a slew of corruption allegations against her. The move drew the ire of many with her critics upbraiding her for the "publicity stunt," but at the same time it is seen as rallying conservatives who have been mustering support and calling for her reinstatement.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Park Geun-hye and the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)


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