Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president, accepted the resignations of several top aides on Sunday as she grappled with a deepening corruption scandal that threatened her grip on power.
The move came after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday demanding Ms Park’s resignation after it emerged last week that Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of the president, was given access to confidential government documents, including first drafts of policy speeches. She also allegedly used her links to the presidency for financial gain.
The presidential aides have been accused in the local media and by opposition members of allegedly helping or at least tolerating Ms Choi’s alleged meddling in state affairs.
Those who resigned included Woo Byung-woo, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, who has for months resisted public pressure to step down amid a separate corruption scandal surrounding his family. Ms Park’s three senior secretaries, who allegedly helped Ms Choi interfere with state affairs, also stepped down.
The saga, which has reignited concerns over transparency, government mismanagement and the country’s longstanding problem with graft, has caused Ms Park’s approval ratings to plunge to record lows. More than 40 per cent of South Koreans surveyed by a poll last week said the country’s first female president should step down.
“Ms Park has lost her authority as president and showed she doesn’t have the basic qualities to govern a country,” Lee Jae-myung, the mayor of Seongnam City and a vocal critic of the government, told the protesters on Saturday.
Ms Park, who has just over a year of her term remaining, last Tuesday publicly apologised for the scandal, bowing deeply in a rare TV address.
But that did little to assuage public anger, with about 8,000 people flooding central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun district on Saturday in protest, with complaints that Ms Park betrayed public trust by allowing her friend to pull the strings behind the scenes.
Ms Choi, who held no official position in the government, is believed to have exerted regular influence over Ms Park’s decision-making between December 2012 and March 2014. This included subjects ranging from Seoul’s policy towards North Korea to the appointment of presidential staff and government posts.
Ms Choi, who had for months been staying in Germany, arrived in Seoul on Sunday to face questioning by prosecutors, her lawyer told reporters. Prosecutors have stepped up their probe into the scandal, raiding the presidential compound, as well as the homes of seven current and former government officials. They have seized computers and files believed to be linked to Ms Choi.
In an interview with Korean media, Ms Choi, 60, said last week she had received presidential documents but denied intervening in state affairs. She also denied allegations that she had pressured companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to non-profit foundations she controls.
The two women have been friends for decades. Ms Choi’s late father, Choi Tae-min — a shadowy religious leader with links to cult activities — was a mentor to Ms Park.
Ms Choi’s former husband was Ms Park’s chief secretary when the president was a lawmaker.
Ms Park has long been tainted by her close ties to Ms Choi’s family, who allegedly took advantage of her high profile to extract money from businesses. Both Ms Park and Ms Choi have denied the allegations.
According to Korean-language media reports, Ms Choi offered counsel to Ms Park on a wide array of issues, from what colour clothes to wear to how she could contact her dead mother.
“I was surprised that our president was this incompetent. She was Ms Choi’s puppet. It is so frustrating and disappointing,” said Yu Ji-Yeon, an office worker, in her blog.
The widening scandal is likely to cement Ms Park’s lame-duck status ahead of next year’s presidential election — a race that she cannot legally contest.
Shin Yul, a professor of politics at Myongji University, said: “A partial personnel shake-up would not be enough to appease the public anger. People have completely lost faith in the president, which will make it difficult for her to pursue any real policy for the remaining term.”
This story has been amended to clarify that the late Choi Tae-min was a mentor to President Park Geun-hye after the death of her mother.