South Korea prosecutors indict friend, former aide of President Park in corruption probe

SEOUL: South Korean prosecutors said on Sunday they had indicted a friend of President Park Geun-hye and two former aides in a corruption scandal engulfing her administration, in a heavy setback to her fight for political survival.

Choi Soon-sil, Park's friend, and former presidential aide An Chong-bum are charged with abuse of power in pressuring conglomerates to contribute funds to foundations at the center of the scandal, said Lee Young-ryeol, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.

Lee said that his team believed Park had an accomplice role in the case but added that she cannot be indicted because she has constitutional immunity.

"We will continue to investigate the president," Lee told reporters, declining to give further details.

Under the constitution, a sitting president cannot be indicted unless on charges of treason, but the conclusion by the prosecutors that Park was involved in the case prompted fresh calls from opposition parties for her to step down.

The main opposition Democratic Party and the centrist People's Party said Park she will face impeachment proceedings if she refuses to resign. But they stopped short of saying they would immediately initiate such a move.

Analysts said the prosecutors' conclusion about the president's involvement increased the prospect that she would face impeachment.

"It provided a legal basis for impeachment proceedings, not only her moral and political liabilities," said Kim Jun-seok, a political science professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Park is unlikely to voluntarily step down because she would lose immunity against prosecution, Kim said.

"Then, the only option that is left for politicians given the worsening public sentiment is impeachment," he said.

South Korea's presidential Blue House did not have an immediate comment. Lee did not say when the prosecutors will question Park.

The indictments had been expected. Choi has been accused of conspiring with An to exert improper pressure on dozens of the country's biggest conglomerates to help raise 77.4 billion won ($65.59 million) on behalf of two non-profit foundations she controlled, according to the prosecutors.

Park's presidency has been rocked by allegations that Choi used her ties to the president to meddle in state affairs and wield improper influence, but she has resisted calls to resign.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday in the fourth straight weekend of protests against her.

Prosecutors also indicted a second former presidential aide, Jeong Ho-seong, with leaking classified information to Choi.

An and Jeong both stepped down late last month as the crisis deepened.

Park has pledged to cooperate in the investigation but pushed back on the prosecutors' plan to question her last week.

South Korea's parliament has approved a bill to appoint a special prosecutor, who will take over from state prosecutors and conduct a separate and a more wide reaching probe. The special prosecutor is expected to begin work next month.