Seoul South Korea’s scandal-hit President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday she was willing to resign early and let parliament decide her fate, a move critics said was a bid to delay impending impeachment.
Park has been engulfed in allegations of influence peddling and claims that tens of millions of dollars have changed hands, sparking widespread anger across South Korea and bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets demanding her ouster.
“I will leave the issue of my departure, including the (possible) reduction of my term in office, to a decision by the National Assembly”, she said in a speech carried live on television.
“Once lawmakers come up with measures to transfer power in a way that minimises any power vacuum and chaos in governance, I will step down,” she said.
Park’s presidency has gone into a tailspin, with accusations that Choi Soon-Sil — a secretive confidante dubbed “Korea’s Rasputin” — elicited more than $60 million in payments from some of the country’s top firms, including Samsung.
Park has been named as a suspect in the growing investigation, making her the first sitting president to be subject to a criminal probe while in office.
While she retains the presidency, she cannot be charged with a criminal offence except insurrection or treason, but she could be charged once she steps down.
Huge protests calling for her impeachment have rocked Seoul every weekend for the more than a month, and opposition parties say they expect to vote to remove her as early as this week.
Park’s latest remarks are a possible bid to defang that effort, critics say, with the president hoping that she can cut a deal that would avoid — or lessen — formal sanctions.
But opponents on Tuesday rubbished her offer.
“Our stance to seek Park’s impeachment remains unchanged,” Choo Mi-Ae, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, said, describing Park’s remarks as “a trick” designed to distract attention.
Three opposition parties, which jointly hold 55 per cent of seats in parliament, and some members of Park’s party are seeking to collect a two thirds of total votes to pass the bill as early as Friday.
If the motion passes, Park would immediately be suspended from official duties and her prime minister would take over as interim head of government.
But the impeachment would not be finalised until the Constitutional Court approves it — a process that could takes six months.
Massive weekly protests have intensified over the past month, with up to 1.5 million people braving freezing temperatures in Seoul Saturday to demand Park’s resignation, according to organisers.
Park has been haemorrhaging allies, with her justice minister stepping down and staunch supporters within her own party calling for her to go.
Park — in her third public apology over the scandal — tried Tuesday to distance herself from Choi, who was charged earlier this month with coercion and abuse of power.
She said the huge sums of money that had changed hands had been directed towards projects that were for “the public good”.
“I have not sought any personal gain there” she said, but added: “It was my fault that I failed to keep my personal ties (with Choi and Choi’s associates) under control.”
Park had earlier promised to submit to a judicial probe, as well as to a separate investigation by an independent special prosecutor.
But she later backtracked, with her lawyer rejecting a series of requests by prosecutors to make herself available for questioning.