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Impeachment trial of South Korean president begins

Choi Soon-sil, jailed confidante of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, appeared Thursday in a Seoul district court.
Choi Soon-sil, jailed confidante of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, appeared Thursday in a Seoul district court.CHUNG SUNG-JUN /EPA

SEOUL — Oral arguments began Thursday in the impeachment trial of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, with one of her lawyers saying that she was a victim of mob justice and comparing her trial with those of Jesus and Socrates.

“Socrates was put to death, and Jesus crucified, in mob trials,” the lawyer, Seo Seok-gu, told the Constitutional Court, denouncing the National Assembly’s vote to impeach Park and criticizing local news coverage of the corruption scandal that has engulfed her in recent months. “Our democracy is in danger because of so-called majority opinion instigated through demagoguery,” he said.

The Constitutional Court has until June to decide whether the National Assembly’s Dec. 9 vote to impeach Park was justified; if so, the president, whose powers have been suspended, will be formally removed from office.

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Park did not appear in court on Thursday. Her lawyers have said that she does not plan to attend the proceedings.

The National Assembly, South Korea’s legislature, has accused Park of conspiring with a longtime friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to extort $69 million from big businesses in return for political favors, like presidential pardons for company leaders convicted of corruption.

Choi, who has been portrayed as a Rasputin-like figure in Park’s presidential Blue House, has been indicted on charges of corruption, and prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice, though she cannot be indicted while in office.

In a separate hearing at a Seoul district court on Thursday, Choi denied the charges against her, calling them unfair.

The legislature has also accused Park of undermining freedom of the press by cracking down on her critics in the news media, and of failing to protect citizens in a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people. Park’s approval ratings fell to record lows for a South Korean president before the National Assembly voted for impeachment, and enormous crowds have gathered in central Seoul on a weekly basis calling for an end to her presidency.

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Kweon Seong-dong, the lead attorney arguing for impeachment on behalf of the National Assembly, told the court on Thursday that the accusations against Park amounted to a “wide range of serious violations” of the law and of the constitution.

“Through this trial, we must confirm a constitutional principle that we cannot tolerate a president who abuses power and betrays the trust of the people,” Kweon said.

But Park’s lead attorney, Lee Joong-hwan, said there were no legal grounds for impeachment, citing what he called a lack of evidence. He said Park had made some “trivial” mistakes — like seeking feedback on some of her speeches from Choi, who held no official post — but that none were serious enough to warrant removal from office.

The most dramatic argument on Park’s behalf, however, came from Seo. Besides referring to Jesus and Socrates, he argued that anti-Park rallies in central Seoul had been organized by communists who sympathize with North Korea, a belief held by some of the president’s older, conservative supporters. “Their candlelight protests didn’t reflect the true sentiments of the people,” he said.

Seo also appealed for “God’s blessings” to protect the court from communist influences. Many of Park’s remaining supporters are vocal Christians; outside the court on Thursday, a few of them read from Bibles and prayed for the president.

The Constitutional Court had hoped to hear testimony on Thursday from four of Park’s former and current aides, but only one appeared: Yoon Jeon-chu, her physical trainer and personal secretary. The court cannot compel witnesses to testify, though they can be penalized if they refuse a summons.

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Yoon did not answer many of the prosecutors’ questions, citing poor memory or an obligation not to divulge secrets. But she provided a detailed account of having delivered payments for dresses that Choi had ordered for the president.