South Korea’s recently impeached and ousted president, Park Geun-hye, was expected to be formally indicted today, becoming the first leader put on criminal trial since the mid-1990s, when two former military-backed presidents were imprisoned for corruption and mutiny.
Prosecutors arrested Park on bribery and a dozen other criminal charges in March. They have visited her at her prison cell outside Seoul five times to question her as part of their efforts to strengthen their case against her.
Her indictment Monday, a widely expected follow-up to her arrest, will prompt the Seoul Central District Court to open a trial. The court is expected to assign her case to a three-judge panel soon.
The judges will then set the date for the first hearing in what will become the biggest court trial since the former military dictator Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death and his friend and successor, Roh Tae-woo, was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison on bribery, mutiny and sedition charges in 1996. (Their sentences were later reduced, and they were pardoned and released in 1997.)
Months of political turmoil and intrigue, set into motion when huge crowds began gathering in central Seoul last fall to demand Park’s resignation, were capped by a Constitutional Court ruling in early March that formally removed her from office.
The National Assembly had voted in December to impeach her on charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power.
The sprawling corruption scandal implicated the leadership of Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, and other big businesses, rekindling public furor over decades-old ties between government and big businesses in one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
Park was accused of conspiring with a longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to coerce big businesses to make donations worth tens of millions of dollars to two foundations controlled by Choi.
The two were also charged with collecting $38 million in bribes or promised bribes from Samsung. Choi and Samsung’s top executive, Lee Jae-yong, were also under arrest and on trial.
In his trial that began last month, Lee, the third-generation scion of the family that runs the conglomerate and the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, has vehemently denied the bribery and other charges against him, saying he sought no favor from Park’s government in return for the money Samsung admitted contributing to support Choi’s foundations and her daughter.
Prosecutors said that what the company called “donations” were bribes used to win government support for the contentious 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates, which they say helped Lee cement control of the conglomerate.
Park, too, has denied the charges against her, arguing that she was victimized by her political enemies.
The removal and arrest of Park, an icon of the conservative establishment, have been a crushing blow to that camp.
Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, leading contenders in the election next month to select Park’s successor, were both opposition politicians and vocal critics of her four-year rule, which they said symbolized a government that served the privileged rather than the common good and that continued corrupt ties with big businesses. Two conservative candidates are polling in the single digits in pre-election surveys.
Park’s downfall and the presidential election in South Korea also have the potential to rattle the delicate balance of international diplomacy in Asia at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea.
Both Moon and Ahn criticized the hard-line North Korean policy of Park’s government and Washington. They said sanctions and pressure alone have failed to stop the North’s nuclear and missile programs and that it was time to try dialogue.
Park is the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea with martial law and arbitrary arrests and torture of dissidents before he was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979.
Park Geun-hye was the first leader of South Korea to be forced from office in response to popular pressure since the founding president, Syngman Rhee, fled into exile in Hawaii in 1960 after protests against his corrupt, authoritarian rule.
If she is convicted of bribery, Park, 65, could face 10 years to life in prison, although her successor has the power to free her with a special presidential pardon.