SEOUL - The woman at the heart of a multi-million dollar South Korean corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye has frustrated lawmakers by refusing to testify before parliament.
Citing poor health and the fact that she is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, Choi Soon-sil, Park's longtime confidante, defied a summons to appear Wednesday before a National Assembly committee that is investigating the possible involvement of the president and her close associates in an influence peddling scheme to force major Korean corporations to donate more than $65 million to two non-profit foundations.
Other key figures in the investigation also refused the parliamentary order to testify. The case is expected to culminate with an impeachment vote this week.
"For the witnesses who are absent today, (the committee) will issue an order forcing them to appear, and they will be responsible for the legal consequences,” said Kim Sung-tae, the committee chairmen and ruling Saenuri Party member.
Those refusing a parliamentary order in South Korea can also face up to five years in prison, although this penalty has rarely been imposed in the past.
Opposition members of the parliamentary investigative committee said they will continue to hold hearings until all witnesses comply with the summons.
“If the order becomes ineffective, then we need to reschedule this hearing and ask the absentees to again attend, and if they do not attend the hearing at that time, then the order must be reissued," said Rep. Kim Kyung-jin, with the People's Party.
Much of public outrage over this scandal has been driven by Choi’s portrayal in the Korean media as a malevolent shaman who secretly controlled the naïve Park, directing both presidential policies and subordinates without holding an official position in government.
Park’s relationship with Choi dates back to the 1970s, during the time her father, Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea for 18 years after coming to power in a coup.
Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, a religious cult leader who founded a sect called the Eternal Life Church, became a mentor to Park while she was acting as first lady after her mother was killed during an assassination attempt on her father.
Choi is currently in custody in a Seoul detention facility and has been charged with abuse of authority, coercion and attempted fraud. She has denied the charges.
Park’s longtime friend is also being investigated for allegedly funneling some of the funds from the foundations into her private businesses, for gaining access to classified government documents without holding a security clearance, and for exploiting her relationship with the president to gain lucrative contracts for herself and friends, as well as gaining her daughter admission into a prestigious university.
Prosecutors in the case have named the president a criminal subject in the investigation and claim she was involved with Choi in directing subordinates to pressure Korean corporations to fund the favored sports and cultural foundations.
The president has defended her support for corporate-funded foundations as being in the national interest. But she maintains she never personally benefited from these projects and was unaware of any illegal actions allegedly taken by those around her.
Her critics say the president was either complicit in the alleged crimes or criminally negligent in permitting them to go on.
The National Assembly has scheduled a vote for Friday to impeach Park. The three major opposition parties, which control 172 of the 300 seats in parliament, are increasingly confident they can reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure.
However a group of ruling party members leaning toward supporting impeachment requested Wednesday that the charges against the president be revised to focus only on the current criminal investigation.
They asked the opposition to remove references to the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed 304 people, many of them high school students.
Park’s perceived delay and the government’s mismanaged response to the Sewol disaster marked her initial public approval decline, which now hovers around five percent.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.