Woman at center of South Korea political crisis begs forgiveness

October 31, 2016 2:20 AM EDT

Choi Soon-sil (C), who is involved in a political scandal, reacts as she is surrounded by media upon her arrival at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji


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By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - The woman at the center of a South Korean political scandal begged forgiveness on Monday as she arrived to meet prosecutors investigating allegations she used her friendship with President Park Geun-hye to influence state affairs and gain benefits.

Choi Soon-sil, wearing a hat and scarf and covering her face with her hand, pushed her way through a scrum of journalists and protesters demanding her arrest and Park's resignation, losing a shoe in the melee, to enter the prosecution building in Seoul.

"I committed a crime I deserve to die for," said Choi, according to pool reporters who followed her into the building, using a Korean expression to convey deep remorse.

"Please forgive me."

Choi returned to South Korea early on Sunday from Germany, where she had been staying, and was ready to answer prosecutors' questions, her lawyer said earlier.

She had been under intense pressure to return as the political crisis engulfed Park over allegations that she allowed Choi to use her friendship to exert improper influence and reap benefits.

Thousands of South Koreans rallied on Saturday seeking Park's resignation over the scandal. They said Park betrayed public trust and mismanaged the government, and had lost a mandate to lead.

Opposition parties have demanded a thorough investigation but have not raised the possibility of impeaching the president.

Park is in the fourth year of a five-year term and the crisis threatens to complicate policymaking during the lame-duck period that typically sets in toward the end of South Korea's single-term presidency.

RESIGNATIONS

In response to the scandal, eight of Park's aides including her chief of staff and three advisers who tightly controlled access to her, have stepped down, her office said on Sunday.

Choi's lawyer, asked if she was admitting guilt by asking for forgiveness, said she was just expressing her feelings, not stating a legal position.

"It wouldn't be right to take it as any kind of legal statement," the lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, told reporters outside the prosecutors' office.

Park apologized last week for giving her friend access to draft speeches during the first months of her presidency but it did little to deflect demands that the president reveal the full nature of her ties with Choi and whether she enjoyed favors because of her friendship with the president.

Park, the daughter of a former president, Park Chung-hee, said she had consulted Choi with good intentions and Choi was someone "who gave me help when I was going through a difficult time".

Choi, in her first comments after weeks of reports about her ties with Park, told a newspaper last week she did get drafts of Park's speeches after Park's election victory but denied she had access to other official material, or that she influenced state affairs or benefited financially.

Choi's lawyer said she was in poor health and may be suffering from a heart condition, which he would discuss with prosecutors.

An unidentified man was taken into custody after dumping a container of what appeared to be animal dung at the door of the prosecutors' office after Choi went in, demanding that prosecutors undertake a proper investigation.

(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tony Munroe)



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