SEOUL — South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that she’ll resign — if parliament arranges the technical details — in her latest attempt to fend off impeachment efforts and massive street protests amid prosecution claims that a corrupt confidante wielded government power from the shadows.
Opponents immediately called Park’s conditional resignation offer a stalling tactic, and analysts said her steadfast denial that she has done anything wrong could embolden her enemies. The country’s largest opposition party, the Minjoo Party, said it would not let Park’s “ploy to avoid impeachment” interfere with a planned vote on impeachment that could take place this Friday or the next.
Park, who did not take questions from reporters after her live address to the nation, said she will “leave the matters about my fate, including the shortening of my presidential term, to be decided by the National Assembly,” referring to parliament.
“If the ruling and opposition parties discuss and come up with a plan to reduce the confusion in state affairs and ensure a safe transfer of governments, I will step down from the presidential position under that schedule and by processes stated in law,” she said.
How exactly this might play out is still unclear. But some saw Park’s speech as a clear effort to avoid leaving office, despite the resignation language.
One clue that she was trying to buy time, said Yul Shin, a politics professor at Seoul’s Myongji University, was her comment on “shortening” the presidential term, which he said would require a time-consuming constitutional amendment. Park is to end her single five-year term in early 2018.
“There is no possibility that the opposition parties will accept her offer; not when the public is this angry,” Shin said. “She apparently wanted to buy more time, but in the end she might have hastened the end of her presidency.”
Others said lawmakers could shorten Park’s term just by securing a vote of two-thirds of the 300-member parliament — the same number of ballots needed to get Park’s impeachment motion passed.
Park’s speech came as opposition parties were closing in on an impeachment motion. Even some of her allies have called on her to “honorably” step down rather than face impeachment. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in Seoul each Saturday to demand her ouster.
The country’s two largest opposition parties said they will propose to the presidential office two former senior prosecutors as candidates for a special prosecutor to independently investigate the scandal. Under a law passed by parliament earlier this month, Park has three days to pick a special prosecutor among the two candidates.
Park, in her speech, continued to deny accusations by prosecutors that she colluded in the criminal activities of her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who, despite having no official role in government, allegedly had a say in policy decisions and exploited her presidential ties to bully companies into giving large sums of money to businesses and foundations that Choi controlled.
“Not for one moment did I pursue my private gains, and I have so far lived without ever harboring the smallest selfish motive,” Park said. “The problems that have emerged are from projects that I thought were serving the public interest and benefiting the country. But since I failed to properly manage those around me, (everything that happened) is my large wrongdoing.”
Instead of buying her more time, Park’s conditional resignation offer may embolden street protesters and further fan the anger of her critics because she continues to deny wrongdoing over the scandal, said Choi Chang Ryul, a politics professor at South Korea’s Yongin University.
Chung Jinsuk, floor leader of Park’s Saenuri Party, defended her speech as showing a “determination to avoid confusion in state affairs,” and said that parliament should “overcome factions” to agree on the process and timeline for Park’s exit.
Opposition parties had first planned to put the impeachment motion to a vote on Friday, but it could be moved to Dec. 9 so that the parties can solidify a strategy.
South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, quit and fled to Hawaii amid a popular uprising in 1960. The succeeding government was overthrown by a coup by Park’s late father, the military dictator Park Chung-hee, whose rule also abruptly ended after he was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979. Choi Kyu-hah then became acting president, but was forced out of office eight months later after a military coup led by Chun Doo-hwan, who would eventually become president.
At the heart of the scandal is Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late cult leader and mentor who became close to Park after her mother’s assassination in 1974.
Prosecutors have so far indicted Choi, two ex-presidential officials and a music video director known as a Choi associate for extortion, leakage of confidential documents and other charges.
Park, who has immunity from prosecution while in office, has refused to meet with prosecutors. Her lawyer, Yoo Yeong-ha, has described prosecutors’ accusations as groundless.
By Foster Klug and Kim Tong-hyung