SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s parliament on Thursday passed a law that would allow a special prosecutor to investigate a corruption scandal threatening the presidency of Park Geun-hye.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly also voted for a parliamentary investigation into allegations that Park allowed a secretive confidante to manipulate power from the shadows and amass an illicit fortune.
The law on an independent investigation came as state prosecutors prepared to indict Park’s friend by Sunday. Prosecutors had sought to question Park this week, but her lawyer on Thursday asked for another week to prepare.
An independent investigation would increase the pressure on Park, who has been facing growing calls by opposition lawmakers to resign. Although emboldened by a wave of massive protests, opposition parties have yet to seriously push for Park’s impeachment over fears of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively impacting next year’s presidential election.
Park has apologized for letting her friend Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late cult leader who emerged as Park’s mentor in the 1970s, edit some of her draft speeches and for the public anger caused by the scandal. But she has not commented on the most damning accusations that she let Choi manipulate important government decisions on policy and personnel.
Under South Korean law, the president has immunity from prosecution except in cases of treason, but she can be investigated.
The law passed on Thursday requires Park to select a special prosecutor among two candidates proposed by opposition parties to lead an investigation that would obviously be aimed at exposing her own wrongdoings.
The special prosecutor can form a team of 60, including up to 20 state prosecutors, and will have 90 days to investigate and determine whether to pursue charges. The investigation period can be extended to 120 days, but only if Park approves. Opposition lawmakers have pushed for an independent investigation into the scandal over concerns that state prosecutors’ close ties with presidential officials might inject bias into their probe.
In a televised apology earlier this month, Park said she would accept a direct investigation into her actions, including one pushed by a special prosecutor.
The launching of an investigation by a special prosecutor would automatically stop the probe by state prosecutors. The special prosecutor can pursue additional charges against suspects that weren’t included in indictments by state prosecutors.
Choi, who prosecutors arrested earlier this month, has been suspected of interfering with government decisions on policy and personnel despite holding no official government job, and exploiting her presidential ties to bully companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to organizations she controlled.
The increasingly strange scandal surrounding Choi has inspired rumors and left her being accused of everything from influencing national security decisions to swaying the careers of pop singers to swinging construction deals for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Extending a series of massive protests in the capital, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rallied in Seoul on Saturday calling for Park’s resignation in what may have been the largest anti-government protest since the country shook off dictatorship three decades ago. Park’s supporters have been staging smaller counter rallies in the city, shouting that she should keep her job.
Park has 15 months left in her term. If she steps down before the end of it, an election must be held within 60 days.