South Korean President Park Geun-hye colluded with a friend to take bribes from Samsung Group aimed at cementing Samsung Chief Jay Y. Lee’s control of the conglomerate, the special prosecutor’s office said on Monday, paving the way for Park to be prosecuted if removed from office.
The independent counsel team, which launched its probe on Dec. 21, ended its 90-day probe on Feb. 28 as Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is serving as the acting president following Park’s impeachment, rejected an extended investigation.
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, an heir apparent of the biggest family-controlled conglomerate, has been taken into custody as he is suspected of paying tens of millions of U.S. dollars in bribes to Choi Soon-sil, Park’s longtime confidante at the center of the scandal, in return for the national pension fund’s support for the merger in 2015 of two Samsung affiliates.
The merger between Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T was extremely crucial to the Samsung heir to inherit the management control from his ailing father Chairman Lee Kun-hee who has been hospitalized after a heart attack nearly three years ago.
Moon Hyung-pyo, former health and welfare minister in charge of the control of the national pension fund who is now in custody, said President Park ordered him in June 2015 to help Samsung merge the two units. The order was given to the former minister through former senior presidential secretary Ahn Jong-beom.
The special prosecutors recommended that the national pension fund, which is in charge of retirement savings for nearly half of the 50 million population, should be free from any outside pressures even from the presidential office and government ministries.
Samsung, however, has claimed that there was no quid pro quo in the donations to two foundations controlled by Choi as well as no pressure on the national pension fund into supporting the 2015 merger.
President Park has been identified as an accomplice to Choi for bribery charges, becoming the first South Korean leader to be branded as a criminal suspect.
According to the investigation results, Park and Choi had had phone calls 573 times between April 18 and Oct. 26 last year through mobile phones bought with borrowed names. Park and other close aides also had conversations via the cellphones.
Choi also intervened in state affairs behind the scenes. The president’s decades-long friend pressured the foreign ministry to nominate a Choi-favored figure as an ambassador to Myanmar to gain illegal profits from official development assistance (ODA) projects.
Independent counsel Park Young-soo told his first press conference that all of prosecutors and investigators tried their best to meet people’s expectations with public support and cheers. He had refrained from standing in front of media cameras for fear of distorted interpretation of his comments.
He expressed the feeling of inconvenience for the non-extended investigations, citing the limited time allowed and non-cooperation from key suspects.
President Park had vowed to accept face-to-face interrogation from special prosecutors, but she rejected repeated calls for it. The presidential office also thwarted the prosecutors’ attempt to search Park’s office, citing the possible leakage of military secrets.
The head of special prosecutors stressed the importance of getting to the bottom of cozy ties between politicians and businessmen as well as the influence-peddling scandal for the national union.
Outside the venue for the press conference, loyalists to President Park rallied against the independent probe, with national flags and the Stars and Stripes in their hands as usual. The Park loyalists, mostly in their 60s, demanded the arrest of the independent counsel.