As a judge announced the opening of a trial hearing, former President Park Geun-hye stepped inside a courtroom in a navy suit with her prison number 503 attached to her jacket.
Amid a barrage of camera flashes and with some 150 spectators looking on, Park entered the courtroom No. 417, where two of South Korea’s former presidents had also stood trial.
The chief judge Kim Se-yun of the three-justice panel addressed her as “the accused Park Geun-hye” and asked her what her occupation is. She feebly responded, “I have no occupation.”
Former President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)
Park’s presidency ended prematurely in March after months of a humiliating scandal that the conservative president allowed her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, a daughter of a cult leader with no policy background, to meddle in state affairs and conspired to extort bribes from large conglomerates. Since late March, Park has been locked up in a solitary cell in a detention center.
At the courtroom Tuesday, Choi sat beside Park. But during the three-hour hearing, the two, who were close for over 40 years, did not even glance at each other. They both looked straight ahead and at times talked to their respective lawyers.
As widely expected, Park denied all the charges.
Her lawyer Yoo Young-ha claimed that the scandal was based on “imagination” and that Park had no reason to commit such wrongdoings. Asked directly whether she agrees, Park said, “My stance is the same with my lawyers. I will say (more) afterward.”
Prosecutors pressed a total of 18 charges against the former president. Among them, a key allegation is that she colluded with Choi to take bribes totaling 59.2 billion won ($52.7 million) from three local firms -- Samsung, Lotte and SK -- and to extort donations from local firms for entities controlled by Choi in return for policy favors.
The prosecution shot back, claiming that its investigation was based on factual relations it confirmed through evidence and testimony.
Reading out the charges against Park and Choi, it said: “The former president standing trial is a part of unfortunate history. But it also shows that the rule of law in that a president can also be judged in the judicial sector if there are any irregularities.”
Former President Park Geun-hye (left) and her now-jailed confidante Choi Soon-sil (right) sit in a courtroom in the Seoul Central District Court on May 23, 2017, to stand trial over a string of corruption charges. (Yonhap)
When the judge asked Choi whether she had anything to say, Choi fiercely defended Park.
“I am like a sinner who made President Park Geun-hye, who I have been with for 40 years, appear in the courtroom,” she said on the verge of tears. “I hope this trial truly frees Park from accusations and lets her be remembered as a president who has devoted herself to the country.”
Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin also took the stand with the two as an accomplice in the bribery scheme. He is suspected of offering kickbacks to the Choi-controlled entities and expecting Park to help his firm to secure the business rights for a duty-free shop.
During the trial, the court refused to accept Park’s request to separate her trial from Choi’s. The judge said it was “inevitable” to try Park and Choi in the same courtroom, citing the same charges against them and a slew of common witnesses involved in the case.
“We understand Park’s lawyer’s concerns, but we will hear the case in accordance with the law and the Constitution without any predictions or prejudice,” the court said.
The hearings will be held twice to three times per week for the coming weeks to give Park’s lawyers enough time to review the 120,000-page investigation records. But the bench said it could “inevitably” hold up to four hearings per week to accelerate the proceedings.
Park, who was indicted April 17, can be detained for up to six months from the date of the indictment, which means the court should make a ruling on the bribery case by mid-October at the latest.
Escorted by correctional officers, Park arrived in handcuffs at the court at around 9:10 a.m. earlier in the day. It was her first appearance in public since she was taken into custody on March 31 over the corruption charges.
Former President Park Geun-hye enters the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul on May 23, 2017, to stand trial over alleged bribery. (Yonhap)
Reflecting public interest in the historic trial, the No. 417 courtroom was packed with some 150 spectators and reporters. The court earlier held a draw to allocate spectator seats.
“I applied for a seat because I wanted to see Park Geun-hye myself and attend the historic trial,” Lee Su-jeong, a 19-year-old student, told The Korea Herald. “I hope the trial can reveal the truth and help eradicate the past practices of corruption involving presidents and companies.”
Outside the court building, some 200 supporters of the former president gathered, chanting “Release the president immediately!” As the bus carrying Park went past them at around 9 a.m., some dropped to the ground and wiped their tears.
Park is also charged with abuse of power for letting Choi meddle in state affairs, helping her business interests and excluding liberal artists critical of her from state support as well as sacking government officials who refused to aid or abet her wrongdoings. Another major charge is leaking government secrets to Choi.
The corruption scandal, which triggered massive street protests for weeks, led the parliament to impeach Park on Dec. 9, with less than a year remaining in her five-year term. The decision was upheld by the Constitutional Court in a unanimous ruling on March 10.
Through a six-month probe into the corruption scandal, the prosecution indicted about 30 people including Choi, former presidential aides, ex-ministers and Samsung Group’s de facto chief Lee Jae-yong in connection with the scandal.
If convicted of bribery, which carries the heaviest punishment among all the charges, Park could be sentenced to life imprisonment or a term of at least 10 years.
Park, who was the first woman to reach the highest office in South Korea, is the third president to face trial on criminal charges, following Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)