Huge Anti-Park Rally Adds Pressure on Korea President to Resign

  • Park is embroiled in influence-peddling scandal over friend
  • Her popularity has sunk to record-low 5 percent amid furor

One of South Korea’s biggest anti-government protests in decades has escalated pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign over an influence-peddling scandal.

Hundreds of thousands of people -- many of them youths -- filled downtown Seoul on Saturday, a sight comparable to the 1987 pro-democracy rally that led the country’s military leaders to adopt direct presidential elections. The demonstration near government buildings, embassies and business headquarters was the largest since rallies began last month after Park first apologized for allowing friend Choi Soon-sil access to government documents.

“Park gave up our future for the future of Choi’s family,” Shin Yu-jin, a 21-year-old college student, said amid calls in the crowd for police to allow the march to continue. “She’s not my president. I want her out right now. Tonight.”

The large turnout adds to pressure on opposition parties to push for Park’s impeachment, a scenario that would lead to an election within 60 days. The scandal has deprived South Korea of strong leadership as economic growth slumps and some of its biggest companies suffer embarrassing setbacks. Park has not commented this weekend on the latest developments.

The protests have become a lightning rod for general dissatisfaction with Park’s leadership, particularly of the economy, among groups such as farmers and workers whose jobs are threatened by slower growth. The distraction risks a cohesive response to the North Korea threat after two nuclear tests from the reclusive nation this year.

It also risks South Korea missing the chance to quickly clarify its relationship with the U.S. after Donald Trump’s election win. Park is skipping the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru this week which will be attended by President Barack Obama and the leaders of Japan and China.

Read more: A story on Park’s decades-long friendship with the Choi family

"She should step down and help rebuild the nation if she has conscience left," Seoul mayor Park Won-soon said late on Saturday night as the rally neared its close. Dozens of opposition party members also joined the rally, criticizing the ruling party for failing to limit Choi’s influence over Park.

The protest drew more than a million people, organizers said. Seoul police, which estimate the crowd at a specific point in time, put the figure at 260,000. About 25,000 police officers, many in riot gear, patrolled the streets.

“People from all regions are here and that makes this rally the voice of the entire nation,” Nam Jeong-su, a spokesman for the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, said by phone. “We are here to leave Park with no choice but to step down.”

‘Significant Confusion’

With the president reluctant to resign before her term ends in early 2018, the chances of opposition lawmakers seeking her impeachment are rising, said Choi Chang-ryul, a liberal arts professor at Yong In University.

“We just can’t go on like this for a year,” he said. “There will be significant confusion and uncertainty, but eventually opposition lawmakers are likely to tilt toward impeachment.”

Park’s popularity has plummeted to the single digits after acknowledging she consulted Choi on “some documents” for a period after taking office in 2013. Opposition lawmakers have linked Choi to a religious movement and say she intervened more extensively in government affairs. She has been arrested on suspicion of attempted fraud and abuse of authority.

Prosecutors have also questioned current and former officials in Park’s administration and executives at some of the country’s biggest companies. Park herself said she would cooperate with the investigation and take responsibility if any wrongdoing is found.

Executives Questioned

A former adviser to Park has been questioned over whether he placed undue pressure on firms to donate tens of millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi. Posco Chief Executive Officer Kwon Oh-joon has been probed on whether Choi’s associates exerted influence over selling the steelmakers’ former advertising unit, according to local media reports.

Roh Seung-kwon, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said investigators on Saturday summoned and questioned the chairmen of Hanwha Group and Hyundai Motor Group. He declined to comment further.

Park’s approval rating remained at 5 percent, Gallup Korea said in a weekly poll released Friday. About 60 percent of respondents told a Realmeter survey last week she should step down or be impeached.

Saturday’s rally was for the most part peaceful as protesters held candles and sang the national anthem. Farmers wearing rice sacks waved banners demanding her resignation and higher crop prices.

As protesters started to head home around 11 p.m. local time, thousands of young people remained, some playing instruments and singing, while others marched toward a barricade separating them from the street leading to the presidential complex. Park’s approval rate among youths is zero, according to the Gallup Korea poll.

“We don’t want a puppet for our president,” Lee Bong-jun, 19, said while leading a group of teenage protesters toward the presidential office. “Who does Park think we are to shortchange us like this?”

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