By CHOE SANG-HUN OCT. 30, 2016 The NewYork Times
SEOUL, South Korea — The shadowy woman at the center of President Park Geun-hye’s worst political scandal apologized for her “wrongdoings” on Sunday. Hours later, Ms. Park fired her chief of staff and seven other presidential aides in an effort to regain public trust, a day after thousands of South Koreans took to the streets to call for her removal from office.
Choi Soon-sil, a longtime associate of Ms. Park widely seen here as a shamanlike adviser for the leader, returned to South Koreaon Sunday from Europe, where she has been in hiding since the scandal erupted weeks ago. Ms. Choi’s lawyer, Lee Gyeong-jae, said she would present herself to prosecutors for questioning on her murky ties with Ms. Park, which are at the heart of the president’s troubles.
“She apologizes deeply for causing the people humiliation and despair,” Mr. Lee said of Ms. Choi in a news conference.
Mr. Lee said she also apologized for “her wrongdoings,” but he did not elaborate. Ms. Park has been accused of letting Ms. Choi, a private citizen with no security clearance or background in policy making, advise on crucial state affairs. Ms. Choi, 60, has also been accused of using her influence with Ms. Park to plant her associates in the government, including the presidential office, and to coerce big businesses to donate millions of dollars each to the two foundations she controls.
As new details of Ms. Choi’s accused manipulation of state affairs have surfaced, Ms. Park’s approval ratings have plunged to record lows. She apologized last Tuesday for letting Ms. Choi edit some of her most important speeches.
On Sunday, Ms. Park carried out a major reshuffle of her presidential staff in recognition of “the graveness of the current situation,” her office said.
Those dismissed included Ahn Chong-bum, the senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, who was accused of collaborating with Ms. Choi in pressuring businesses to donate to her foundations. Also fired were three lower-tier aides known as the three gatekeepers for their purported role in controlling who Ms. Park met with and what information reached her. All three are considered close to Ms. Choi.
Despite the reshuffle, Ms. Park did not replace her aides on foreign policy and national security.
Pressure has been mounting on her to overhaul her leadership style and government to regain some of her lost authority. On Sunday, her governing Saenuri Party asked her to form a new cabinet with opposition parties.
Ms. Park’s plummeting political fortunes were dramatized on Saturday, when prosecutors raided the homes of a few presidential aides believed to be under Ms. Choi’s sway and accused of collaborating in influence-peddling. Prosecutors also appeared at the Blue House, Ms. Park’s presidential office and residence in Seoul, the capital, demanding they be allowed to search aides’ offices there for criminal evidence.
The Blue House refused them entry, but the prosecutors returned on Sunday, pressing the same demand — a highly unusual move for prosecutors, who have long been accused of being a servile political tool of the sitting president.
Also on Saturday, at a rally in downtown Seoul, thousands marched on the Blue House to chants of “Down with Park Geun-hye!” and “Impeach Park Geun-hye!” Shoving matches erupted when riot police officers blocked the marchers.
Organizers said 30,000 people attended the demonstration, while the police estimated the crowd at 12,000.
South Koreans are proud of the global economic powerhouse they built from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War and the democracy they achieved after decades of brutal rule by military dictators, including Ms. Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who led the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
Ms. Park’s scandal is seen as particularly inflammatory because it hurts that pride.
On Saturday, many demonstrators said they felt ashamed to be South Korean. Speaking to the crowd, Lee Jae-myeong, mayor of Seongnam, a city just south of Seoul, said that the president had humiliated the people by relying on a “shamanlike figure” to handle important state affairs, referring to Ms. Choi.
“We may be weak, we may be poor, but we have not lost our pride yet,” Mayor Lee said to cheers from the crowd. “President Park has lost her authority as president and she must step down.”
Little had been known about Ms. Choi, except that she was the daughter of a minor religious cult leader who befriended Ms. Park in the 1970s, when her father, the military dictator, was still in power. Ms. Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, had been accused of manipulating Ms. Park, though Ms. Park has defended him as a patriot and a mentor. Some critics believe that Ms. Choi has inherited her father’s Rasputin-like role in Ms. Park’s life.
Major political parties have so far refrained from calling for Ms. Park to step down. Her single five-year term ends in February 2018.
All recent South Korean presidents have ended their terms in ignominy, disgraced by scandals that often implicate their children as well. Many South Koreans had hoped that Ms. Park, the country’s first female president, who is unmarried and has no children, would be an exception.