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South Korea president's friend, former aides indicted amid corruption scandal

South Korean prosecutors have formally charged an old friend of President Park Geun-hye who has been suspected of manipulating power from the shadows and exploiting her presidential ties to amass an illicit fortune.

President Park Geun-hye's friend Choi Soon-sil suspected of interfering with state affairs

South Korean protesters wearing masks of President Park Geun-hye, left, and her friend Choi Soon-sil, sit in a mock prison during a rally calling for Park to step down in Seoul on Friday. The cards read 'Disgrace of the country' and 'Destruction of democracy.' (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

South Korean prosecutors have formally charged an old friend of President Park Geun-hye who has been suspected of manipulating power from the shadows and exploiting her presidential ties to amass an illicit fortune.

The indictment of Choi Soon-sil on Sunday came as prosecutors are preparing to question Park, who has immunity but can be investigated, said Lee Young-ryeol, chief prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office. 

In a televised news conference, Lee said that based on the evidence, "the president was involved as a conspirator in a considerable part of the criminal activities by suspects Choi Soon-sil, Ahn Jong-beom and Jung Ho-sung." He was referring to two presidential aides who also were formally charged Sunday for allegedly helping Choi.

"However, because of the president's impunity from prosecution stated in Article 84 of the constitution, we cannot indict the president. The special investigation headquarters will continue to push for an investigation of the president based on this judgment," Lee said.

Lee Young-ryeol, chief prosecutor of the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office, said President Park Geun-hye cannot be indicted due to constitutional immunity. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

Choi, the daughter of a late cult leader who emerged as Park's mentor in the 1970s, has been suspected of interfering with state affairs and bullying companies into giving tens of millions of dollars to foundations she controlled.

Park is facing growing calls to resign over the scandal critics say has undermined the country's democracy. Although emboldened by a wave of mass protests, opposition parties have so far refrained from seriously pushing for Park's impeachment over fears of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively impacting next year's presidential election.

However, there are growing voices within the opposition saying that an impeachment attempt is inevitable because it's unlikely Park will resign and give up her immunity.

Ahn Jong-beom, Park's former senior secretary for policy coordination, was charged with abuse of authority, coercion and attempted coercion over allegations that he pressured companies into making large donations to foundations and companies Choi controlled.

South Korean protesters hold up candles during a rally calling for Park to step down in Seoul on Saturday. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Jung Ho-sung, the other former aide who was indicted, was accused of passing on classified presidential documents to Choi, including information on ministerial candidates.

According to Lee, Choi and Ahn conspired to pressure companies into giving a combined $65.5 million US to the Mir and K-Sports foundations, two nonprofits that were under Choi's control. The companies couldn't refuse because they feared doing so would result in business disadvantages, such as difficulties in gaining government approval for projects or being targeted in tax investigations, Lee said.

Additionally, Choi and Ahn pressured the Lotte Group into giving $5.9 million US to the K Sports foundation to finance the construction of a sports facility in the city of Hanam, which was to be operated by The Blue K, a company established by Choi, Lee said.

Auto giant Hyundai and telecommunications company KT were forced to contract $11 million US worth of their advertisements to Playground, an ad agency virtually run by Choi, Lee said. Hyundai was also forced to buy $931,000 US worth of supplies from an auto parts maker run by Choi's friend. Ahn and Choi also tried but failed to take over the shares of an advertisement company previously owned by steelmaker POSCO, Lee said.

Park's term lasts until Feb. 24, 2018. If she steps down before the presidential vote on Dec. 20, 2017, an election must be held within 60 days. (Bae Jae-man/Yonhap via AP)

Prosecutors are also seeking to indict Cha Eun-taek, a famous music video director who allegedly used his close relationship with Choi to win lucrative government culture projects, and former vice sports minister Kim Chong, suspected of providing business favors to sports organizations controlled by Choi.

Kim is also under suspicion of influencing the ministry's decision to financially support a sports foundation run by Choi's niece, who prosecutors detained on Friday.

On Saturday, police said about 170,000 people turned out for the latest anti-Park protest in streets near City Hall and a boulevard fronting an old palace gate in Seoul.

Demonstrators also marched in streets near the presidential offices, carrying candles and illuminating cellphones, and shouting "Park Geun-hye step down" and "Arrest Park Geun-hye."

Park's term lasts until Feb. 24, 2018. If she steps down before the presidential vote on Dec. 20, 2017, an election must be held within 60 days.

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