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South Korea's Park apologizes, promises cooperation in graft probe

By Christine Kim and Joyce Lee | Mon, March 20, 2017 11:06 EDT

SEOUL (Reuters) - Ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye apologized to the country on Tuesday as she arrived at prosecutors' offices for questioning as a criminal suspect in a widening corruption investigation that has already cost her the presidency.

"I am sorry to the people. I will faithfully cooperate with questioning," Park said in front of media at the steps of the prosecutors' office building, her first comments directly to the public since she was dismissed on March 10.

Park, 65, became South Korea's first democratically elected president to be removed from office when the Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment by parliament in December.

She has been accused of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations that backed her policy initiatives.

Park has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged in the case. Choi has also denied wrongdoing.

However, Park lost her presidential immunity when she was dismissed and could face more than 10 years in jail if convicted of receiving bribes from bosses of big conglomerates, including Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee, in return for favors.

Park's fate and the widening corruption investigation have gripped the country at a time of rising tension with North Korea and China.

Hundreds of Park's flag-waving supporters gathered outside her home in Seoul's upmarket Gangnam district to see her off.

Television cameras followed her as she was driven to the prosecutors' office in a black sedan, a few minutes away from her home, escorted by police who cleared the road.

Earlier, media saw Park's hairdresser arriving at her home.

She was dressed in a dark navy coat and trouser suit with gray shoes, and looked serious as she stood on the lower steps of the prosecutors' offices to deliver her brief remarks.

'EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW'

Park, who was accompanied by two of her lawyers, was given tea in a 10th-floor break room before going in for her first session of questioning by two prosecutors and one investigation official, prosecutors said in a statement.

One her lawyers, Yoo Yeong-ha, is known as her "Bulletproof Vest" and has been her legal voice since the beginning of the scandal in October.

Park declined to have her questioning recorded by video camera, prosecutors said.

A prosecution official told reporters earlier the questioning was expected to go on late into the night.

The scandal has undermined support for Park's conservative ruling party. A prominent liberal opposition politician, Moon Jae-in, is leading in opinion polls and is expected to win a snap presidential election on May 9.

Park's supporters and opponents have held rival protests in the capital, Seoul, for months but police have managed to keep them apart and no serious violence has broken out between them.

A spokesman for Moon, asked about Park's questioning, said uncovering the truth would help to heal divisions.

"We want former President Park to tell the truth and ask for forgiveness. All are equal before the law," said the spokesman, Park Kwang-on.

"People will watch the investigation. Finding the truth is a first step for the unity of the people," he said.

A senior official from Park's party urged prosecutors not to be swayed by public opinion but to find the truth and give Park the cordial treatment a former president deserved.

"Everyone, not only me, is feeling miserable and distressed," Chung Woo-taik, the party leader in parliament, told a meeting.

(Additional reporting Ju-min Park, Christine Kim; Editing Robert Birsel and Paul Tait)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017. Click For Restrictions - http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp



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