SEOUL — South Korea’s Constitutional Court, which will decide whether President Park Geun-hye is permanently removed from office, Thursday ordered Park to respond to one of the most contentious accusations against her: that she neglected her duties on the day in 2014 when hundreds died in the sinking of a ferry.
Park’s presidential powers have been suspended since Dec. 9, when the National Assembly voted to impeach her. The court has until June to decide whether her impeachment is justified, either reinstating her or formally ending her presidency. Thursday’s hearing, which Park did not attend, was the start of that process.
The legislature accused Park of a wide range of violations of law and the constitution, including taking bribes from businesses. But for South Koreans, perhaps the most emotional accusation is that Park failed to protect citizens’ lives April 16, 2014, the day the Sewol ferry sank off the country’s southwestern coast. More than 300 people drowned, most of them teenagers on a school trip, and the country was scarred by the catastrophe, perhaps the worst in its peacetime history.
Park has been dogged by questions about what she was doing during the first seven hours of the Sewol disaster. She did not emerge from her official residence during that time, and her office has not explained what she was doing, though it has said she received updates and gave orders. In its impeachment bill, the National Assembly said Park’s reticence undermined the people’s right to know about the government’s activities.
On Thursday, the court appeared to agree.
“That was such a day for the country that most people will remember what they were doing that day,” Justice Lee Jin-sung said. “I am sure she has such memories. We ask her to give us a thorough account of where in the Blue House she was in those seven hours, an hour-by-hour account of what official and private work she was doing then, and what reports and instructions she received and gave.”
A variety of government failures contributed to the Sewol disaster, and it deepened distrust of Park’s leadership. Lurid rumors have since spread about what she was doing during those hours; one such story says she was having a romantic liaison, another that she was undergoing plastic surgery. No evidence has emerged to support either allegation, both of which her office has denied. Her government has sued and even arrested people who have been accused of spreading such rumors.