SEOUL, South Korea — Scrambling to defuse a massive scandal, South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday conceded to lawmakers the power to name her new prime minister, a move that could seriously hurt, or even destroy, her ability to govern.
Park, who has faced tens of thousands of protesters and an investigation into whether a mysterious confidante manipulated government decisions, made the overture during a meeting with National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun.
Just being forced to work with a deputy named by lawmakers — previously a decision left up to the president — would weaken her ability to make basic decisions and influence power in the assembly.
But lawmakers, who must still settle on a prime minister nominee, are demanding even more. Some opposition members want the president to divorce herself from all domestic affairs and focus only on foreign matters, while others want her to stay out of government completely.
These scenarios would destroy Park’s authority as president during her last 15 months in office, forcing her to voluntarily yield large parts, or maybe even all, of her presidential powers to a prime minister named by an opposition-controlled legislature.
Even so, it is still unclear what the splintered assembly will decide on, or when — or what Park will agree to. Park’s ruling party is divided between those who support Park and those who don’t, and the opposition, while having more members than the ruling party, is also split into factions.
The prime minister is largely a ceremonial job, though by law he or she directs executive ministries under the order of the president and has other important rights. There have always been calls to give the office more power to balance the large role the president has.
Last week Park nominated a new prime minister, but he is likely to withdraw from consideration after Park allowed the legislature to pick a new nominee. The current nominee, Kim Byong-joon, told reporters that he would be in charge of social and economic issues and fully exercise the rights as a prime minister if his nomination received parliamentary approval. Park’s office said Tuesday those conditions endorsed by Park would still stand for a new nominee.
The political tug-of-war over the prime minister comes amid a scandal involving Park’s longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who has no official government role. Investigators are looking into whether Choi made major government decisions and used her relationship with Park to force companies to donate money to two foundations controlled by Choi.
Earlier Tuesday, South Korean prosecutors raided the Seoul office of Samsung Electronics, the nation’s largest and most valuable company, in connection with the scandal.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office provided no other details. The Yonhap news agency said investigators suspect Samsung gave Choi’s daughter illicit financial help.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Seoul over the weekend, demanding Park’s removal from office. Her approval ratings were, at one point, the worst of any president since South Korea gained democracy in the late 1980s.
Nam Jeong-su, spokesman of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of South Korea’s two large umbrella union groups, said he expects 150,000 anti-Park unionists, plus supporters, to gather Saturday and march to the presidential Blue House.
Park’s government, meanwhile, said Tuesday she would skip an Asia-Pacific leaders’ meeting in Peru later this month. The announcement sparked media speculation that the scandal may have forced Park to cancel her plans to attend the summit, though officials said the decision was made before the scandal exploded and is aimed at focusing on how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.
South Korea’s Park indicates willing to relinquish some power amid crisis
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Tuesday she will withdraw her nominee for prime minister if parliament recommends a candidate and is willing to let the new premier control the cabinet, seeking to defuse a crisis rocking her presidency.
Park’s comments at a meeting with the speaker of parliament indicated she was willing to relinquish some control over state affairs – a key demand by opposition parties to resolve the scandal stemming from allegations that her friend improperly wielded influence using her ties to the president.
“If parliament recommends a good person with an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties, I will appoint that person as prime minister and allow him to essentially take control over the cabinet,” Park told the speaker, Chung Sye-kyun.
The position of prime minister is usually a figurehead in South Korea, with most power concentrated in the presidential office.
Park has been severely bruised by the scandal involving her friend, Choi Soon-sil, who is alleged to have used her closeness to the president to meddle in state affairs and wield influence in the sports and cultural communities.
Choi has been charged with abuse of power and fraud while a former aide has been charged with abuse of power and extortion after they helped raise 77.4 billion won ($68 million) from dozens of the country’s biggest conglomerates on behalf of two foundations.
Park nominated Kim Byong-joon, a former cabinet minister under a liberal ex-president, as premier last week but the move, which requires a parliamentary approval, drew anger from the opposition as a bid to divert attention from the crisis and yet another example of her heavy-handed approach.
Park’s visit to parliament was brief and she did not meet the leaders of opposition parties despite news reports that said she had hoped to do so.
Instead she was met with some opposition members inside the building who held signs that said she should relinquish authority and even some that called on her to step down.
Park has publicly apologized twice for the scandal but her approval rating has plunged to 5 percent according to a Gallup poll released on Friday, the lowest since such polling began in 1988.
No South Korean president has failed to finish their five-year term, but Park has faced growing pressure from the public and some hardline political opponents to quit. Park’s term is due to end in early 2018.
South Korean prosecutors raided the offices of Samsung Electronics earlier on Tuesday as part of a probe over the scandal involving Choi, a prosecution official told Reuters but declined to comment further.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported prosecutors are looking into whether Samsung improperly provided financial assistance to Choi’s daughter.
Samsung Electronics, reeling from a $5.4 billion profit hit after it was forced to discontinue its fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, said prosecutors visited its office but declined to comment further.
Prosecutors have been investigating an allegation that Samsung provided 2.8 million euros ($3.1 million) to a company co-owned by Choi and her daughter, who was previously a member of the South Korean national equestrian team, Yonhap reported.
Park Sang-jin, a Samsung Electronics president for corporate relations, is currently head of Korea Equestrian Federation. Yonhap said his office was part of the prosecutor’s raid Tuesday morning. Park Sang-jin could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors have already questioned a Samsung executive as part of the probe, according to a prosecution source.
Yonhap reported prosecutors were also raiding the offices of the Korea Equestrian Federation and the Korea Horse Affairs Association.
The Korea Equestrian Federation declined to comment on Yonhap report, and the Korea Horse Affairs Association did not immediately comment.
(Additional reporting by Se Young Lee; Editing by Lincoln Feast)
Tags: Choi Soon-sil, foundations controlled by Choi, Kim Byong-joon, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Nam Jeong-su, National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun, North Korea's nuclear program, opposition-controlled legislature, Park Geun-hye, presidential powers, Samsung Electronics, scandal, South Korea