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(LEAD) Park quietly marks birthday amid probe, impeachment trial

All News 18:40 February 02, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES with new info in paras 4-8)
By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's birthday a year ago was filled with an air of festivity with her secretaries and Cabinet ministers attending celebratory events at her office, though the mood was slightly dampened by North Korea's nuclear test the previous month.

But her 65th birthday on Thursday appeared subdued with no public figures coming forward to openly congratulate the suspended president who has been grappling with a probe into her corruption allegations and an impeachment trial. She only had a luncheon with her top aides.

Park was suspended from exercising all powers on Dec. 9 after the National Assembly impeached her over a supposed influence-peddling scandal revolving around her friend Choi Soon-sil. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has since been serving as the acting president.

During the luncheon, Park commented on the ongoing visit by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and defended a set of her security policy decisions.

Noting that Mattis chose South Korea as the first leg of his first overseas trip since he took office less than two weeks ago, Park said the Trump administration has taken "thoughtful" action to underline the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

"It carries a great meaning that just some 10 days after the Trump administration was inaugurated, it sent its defense secretary to South Korea first," she was quoted by her aide as saying.

Park also said the decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system to Korea was "of great importance" for the alliance."

The chief executive then defended last year's decision between Seoul and Tokyo to sign a military intelligence-sharing arrangement, a deal that has drawn flak from citizens still harboring resentment toward their onetime colonizer. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45.

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

With the probe team's face-to-face questioning expected to take place as early as next week, Park has concentrated on firming up her legal rationale to repudiate a slew of corruption charges that have dogged her since the scandal was brought to the fore late October.

Park is accused of having colluded with Choi in extorting money and favors from local conglomerates such as Samsung Group. She is also alleged to have allowed her friend, with no government post, to meddle in important state affairs.

The probe team is also looking into the allegations that the president played a role in creating and managing a blacklist of artists -- critical of her government -- to bar them from getting any state support.

Park has repeatedly denied all the allegations, calling them "preposterous, colossal lies" and even claimed state prosecutors were biased in their investigation.

Adding to the downbeat mood at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae is the special prosecutors' upcoming raid. The investigators are expected to search the office some time this week, but Cheong Wa Dae has opposed it, citing security concerns.

An accelerating impeachment trial has also been weighing heavily on Park's mind, at a time when her attorneys want sufficient time to build their case at the Constitutional Court.

The top court has to decide whether to unseat or reinstate Park by early June. But its former chief Park Han-chul, whose six-year term ended last month, called for its ruling to be rendered by March before another justice's term ends. The president's ouster requires the approval of at least six justices.

The former justice warned that an additional vacancy on the nine-member bench could lead to a "distorted" ruling. Park's lawyers attacked the comment as being unjustified since setting a deadline on a trial that has not been thoroughly checked can lead to a "wrong" ruling that can have serious consequences.


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