South Korea's Park apologises, promises cooperation in graft probe

SEOUL:  Ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye apologized to the country on Tuesday as she arrived at prosecutors' offices for questioning as a criminal suspect in a widening corruption investigation that has already cost her the presidency.

Park, 65, became South Korea's first democratically elected president to be removed from office when the Constitutional Court, on March 10, upheld her impeachment by parliament in December.

She has been accused of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations that backed her policy initiatives. Park and Choi have both denied wrongdoing.

"I am sorry to the people. I will faithfully cooperate with questioning," Park said in front of media at the steps of the prosecutors' office building, her first comments directly to the public since she was dismissed.

Park has not been charged but could face more than 10 years in jail if convicted of receiving bribes from bosses of big conglomerates, including Samsung Group chief Jay Y Lee, in return for favors.

Park's fate and the widening corruption investigation have gripped the country at a time of rising tension with North Korea and China.

Hundreds of Park's flag-waving supporters gathered outside her home in Seoul's upmarket Gangnam district to see her off, and later gathered outside the prosecution office.

Television cameras followed her as she was driven in a black sedan to the office, a few minutes away from her home, escorted by police who cleared the road.

Earlier, media saw Park's hairdresser arriving at her home.

She was dressed in a dark navy coat and trouser suit with gray shoes, and looked somber as she stood to deliver her brief remarks.


Park, who was accompanied by two of her lawyers, was given tea before going in for her first session of questioning by two prosecutors and an investigation official, prosecutors said in a statement.

One of her lawyers, Yoo Yeong-ha, is known as her "Bulletproof Vest" and has been her legal voice since the beginning of the scandal in October.

Park declined to have her questioning recorded by video camera, prosecutors said.

She had a lunch break after less than three hours of questioning - some seaweed rice rolls and a sandwich - one of her lawyers said.

The questioning is expected to last late into the night and another of her lawyers, Sohn Bum-kyu, told a television channel Park would choose whether it would go beyond midnight.

Park had practised answers to certain questions with her lawyers, Sohn said, adding that Park's health was not at its best.

"She is receiving check-ups between questioning sessions as her health isn't looking well," said Sohn.

The scandal has undermined support for Park's conservative ruling party. A prominent liberal opposition politician, Moon Jae-in, is leading in opinion polls and is expected to win a snap presidential election on May 9.

Park's supporters and opponents have held rival protests in the capital, Seoul, for months but police have managed to keep them apart and no serious violence has broken out between them.

A spokesman for Moon, asked about Park's questioning, said uncovering the truth would help to heal divisions.

"We want former President Park to tell the truth and ask for forgiveness. All are equal before the law," said the spokesman, Park Kwang-on. "Finding the truth is a first step for the unity of the people."

A senior official from Park's party urged prosecutors not to be swayed by public opinion but to find the truth and give Park the cordial treatment a former president deserved.

"Everyone, not only me, is feeling miserable and distressed," the party leader in parliament, Chung Woo-taik, told a meeting.