SEOUL - Without using the words impeachment or resignation, South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday expressed her willingness to step down from office in an orderly manner, once and if the National Assembly passes a measure requiring her to do so.
"I will leave my future course of action, including the shortening of my presidential term, to the decision of the National Assembly,” Park said during a hastily scheduled televised address to the nation.
She also added what seemed to be vague conditions and an uncertain timeline to her exit, saying she would “leave my presidential position according to the schedule and legal procedure,” and in accordance with measures to be developed by the ruling and opposition parties to “minimize the chaos and gap in state affairs, and to stably transfer power."
Opposition leaders reacted to the president’s speech with skepticism. Some suspect this might be a political maneuver to delay impeachment efforts underway and to shore up her support within her Saenuri Party.
Choo Mi-ae, the head of the Democratic Party of Korea, indicated that the president’s offer for a conditional resignation will not alter opposition plans to introduce a joint impeachment motion this week that could be voted on by Friday.
On his Facebook page, Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the opposition People's Party, condemned President Park's “tricky politics” and vowed to continue the impeachment process with opposition support and “honest lawmakers of the Saenuri party."
Impeachment requires a two-thirds approval vote from the 300 member National Assembly.
Leaders from the Democratic Party of Korea and the People’s Party, which hold 159 seats in the National Assembly, have been increasingly confidant they can convert enough disaffected Saenuri Party members to reach the 200 votes needed to impeach the president.
Key members of Park’s ruling party in the National Assembly met on Monday to urge the president to step down with dignity rather than force an impeachment vote.
Park’s popularity, based on a carefully crafted image as an incorruptible leader, has plummeted after allegations surfaced of a multimillion-dollar influence peddling scandal involving the president’s confidant Choi Soon-sil and some of her closest advisers.
On Tuesday, the South Korean president apologized for the third time, saying she made a mistake in not seeing wrongdoings being committed by those around her. But Park emphasized that in her 18 years in public service she never used her office to seek financial gain.
Last week, for the first time in South Korean history, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor named the sitting president a criminal suspect in the corruption investigation.
The prosecution claims Park’ was involved in illicit acts allegedly committed by her influential friend Choi Soon-sil and former aide Ahn Jong-bum to force major Korean conglomerates to donate more than $65 million to two foundations using threats of tax audits.
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.
Ahn faces similar charges and another presidential adviser was charged with leaking government secrets to Choi, who held no official position or security clearance.
The President defended her own role in supporting the establishment sports and cultural foundations to promote the country’s interests.
“I believed that these are for the good of the nation and were carried out for the public good. I have never personally benefited,” she said.
Much of the public outrage over the scandal involves the perception that Choi was able to 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.
If the National Assembly votes to impeach President Park, she will be immediately suspended from office until the Constitutional Court reviews the motion, a process that could take up to 180 days.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn would become acting president during the interim period.
If the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment vote, a new presidential election must then be scheduled within 60 days of the ruling.
The president’s single five-year term of office ends in early 2018. Even though the president cannot be charged with a crime while in office, Park could face criminal charges after she steps down or is impeached.
For the last five weekends, hundreds of thousands of people protested across the country to demand the president’s resignation.
The South Korean president’s approval rating has dropped to just 4 percent and a recent poll found that 80 percent of South Koreans support her impeachment.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.