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South Korean president makes power concession amid scandal

Published 08/11/2016

Park Geun-hye meets National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun at the National Assembly in Seoul (Yonhap/AP)
Park Geun-hye meets National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun at the National Assembly in Seoul (Yonhap/AP)

Scrambling to defuse a massive scandal, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has conceded to politicians the power to name her new prime minister, a move which could seriously damage, or even destroy, her ability to govern.

Ms 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 politicians - previously a decision left up to the president - would weaken her ability to make basic decisions and influence power in the assembly.

But politicians, 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 Ms 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.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear what the splintered assembly will decide on, or when - or what Ms Park will agree to. Msd Park's ruling party is divided between those who support her and those who do not, 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 Ms Park nominated a new prime minister, but he is likely to withdraw from consideration after Ms 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. Ms Park's office said on Tuesday that those conditions endorsed by Ms Park would still stand for a new nominee.

The political tug-of-war over the prime minister comes amid a scandal involving Ms Park's longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who has no official government role. Investigators are looking into whether Ms Choi made major government decisions and used her relationship with Ms Park to force companies to donate money to two foundations controlled by Ms Choi.

Earlier on 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 Ms Choi's daughter illicit financial help.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Seoul over the weekend, demanding Ms 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 on Saturday and march to the presidential Blue House.

Ms Park's government, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that she would miss an Asia-Pacific leaders' meeting in Peru later this month. The announcement sparked media speculation that the scandal may have forced Ms 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 programme.

AP

Press Association

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