SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA —
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Seoul on Saturday to call for the ouster of President Park Geun-hye, marking the sixth straight weekend of demonstrations in the city.
The protests started shortly after South Korea's National Assembly announced Friday a vote to impeach Park had been postponed until December 9.
The president has been embroiled in a multi-million-dollar influence peddling scandal that has decimated her image as a strong and incorruptible leader.
The scandal surrounding the president has led to huge protests that swallowed up a large portion of downtown Seoul each of the past six Saturdays. Police estimated the number of protesters to be around 320,000, though protest organizers put the number far higher, at around 1.7 million.
Thousands more protesters also gathered outside the National Assembly, encouraging lawmakers from both sides to vote in favor of Park's impeachment next week.
For the first time in South Korean history, prosecutors named the sitting president as a subject in a criminal investigation. They claim Park was involved in illicit acts allegedly committed by her influential friend, Choi Soon-sil, to force major Korean conglomerates to donate more than $65 million to two foundations. Choi is also alleged to have funneled some of the funds to her private companies and to side contracts for friends.
Opposition leaders earlier indicated they had the two-thirds majority needed in the 300-member National Assembly to impeach the president, and were planning the vote for Friday.
To reach the 200 votes threshold, the two main opposition parties, the Democratic Party of Korea and the People’s Party, which hold 159 seats in parliament, will need support from a number of independent legislators and disaffected members of the ruling Saenuri Party.
However President Park’s offer on Tuesday to resign under certain conditions has united her party against impeachment, at least for now, and has frustrated the opposition.
"The Saenuri Party lawmakers have no intention to back the impeachment, even if we arrange the vote for December 9," said Choo Mi-ae, the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Korea.
Lawmakers from the Saenuri Party are now backing a plan to meet the conditions for her resignation set by Park, specifically that the National Assembly first arrange for a stable transfer of power. That could include naming a new prime minister and other interim officials to run the government after she resigns and until a newly elected president is sworn in.
“For the stable transition of power and for the securing of a preparatory period for the next presidential election, all members of the ruling party unanimously made the decision,” said Chung Jin-suk, the Saenuri party leader in the National Assembly.
Park loyalists are calling for the president’s voluntary resignation by the end of April and for the presidential election to be held in June.
Some Saenuri Party members who were leaning toward supporting impeachment have indicated they will reassess their positions next week after the parties debate the proposed timeline for Park’s resignation.
Ban: Following the situation
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had widely been considered a top contender to replace Park before the scandal erupted, said in an interview with VOA Friday that he has been closely following the situation and watching the protesters. "I know that they are very much frustrated and angry about this lack of good governance," he said.
"I am sure that [the] Korean people will be able to overcome this crisis as soon as possible," he added. "I think Korea has very good, resilient and matured democratic institutions, and I only hope that they will be able to overcome with a sense of the future, a better future of their country, with the maturity of their democracy and wisdom."
Ban has not said whether he will run for president, deferring any public decision until his term as U.N. chief finishes at the end of this year.
"When I retire from this job ... then I will have to discuss this matter with the leaders of Korean society, my friends, my family," he said.
Critics say the president is just stalling for time to finish out her single five-year term in office, which ends in early 2018.
The timeline for impeachment could also take six to nine months for a new presidential election to be scheduled. The Constitutional Court would have to first review the impeachment motion, a process that could take up to 180 days. If approved, lawmakers would then have 60 days to schedule a new election.
However if impeached, President Park would be immediately suspended from office and the prime minister would act as the interim head of government.
The National Assembly will hold public hearings next week to question corporate leaders who were allegedly pressured by Choi to donate millions of dollars to sports and cultural foundations.
For her part, Choi has been charged with abuse of authority, coercion and attempted fraud, and is also suspected of funneling some of the funds to her own private businesses.
One of the president’s aides faces similar charges and another has been indicted for leaking government secrets to Choi, who held no official position or security clearance.
For the last five weeks there have been massive public protests across the country demanding President Park’s resignation and more are planned for this weekend.
The South Korean president’s approval rating has dropped to just four percent and a recent poll found that 80 percent of South Koreans support her impeachment.
Much of the public outrage over the corruption scandal involves the perception that Choi was able exercise “cult-like” control over the naïve Park.
Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, a religious cult leader, became a mentor to Park, after her mother was killed during an assassination attempt on her father Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for 18 years after coming to power in a coup.
Margaret Besheer at the United Nations and Youmi Kim contributed to this report