A Guide to the Major Legal Cases in Korea’s Presidential Scandal

  • Park would lose immunity if court upholds impeachment motion
  • More than 400 people have been investigated over scandal

South Korea’s prosecutors turned up at President Park Geun-hye’s palatial Blue House compound in the center of Seoul yet again last Friday, only to be turned away once more.

Yet Park can’t keep investigators at bay forever. The Constitutional Court has until the end of May to rule on the validity of an impeachment motion passed by parliament last year that left her suspended from power. If it approves, she’ll officially lose her position -- and her immunity -- while the nation prepares for a fresh election in 60 days.

Park’s political fate is just the tip of the iceberg of one of South Korea’s worst scandals in decades. Besides the court cases, the public outrage is also spurring moves to curtail the powers of both the presidency and family-run conglomerates that dominate Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.

Protesters rally against Park Geun-hye on Jan. 7.

Photographer: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

Park could face criminal charges for allegations including letting her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil access classified information and pressure major businesses like Samsung Electronics Co. into donating money to her foundations in return for business favors -- accusations they both deny. Investigators are also looking into whether Park knew of a blacklist to block dissident artists from receiving government support.

Park isn’t alone. Investigators have questioned more than 400 individuals, raided 150 companies and government agencies, tracked the bank accounts of 73 people and analyzed the phone conversations of more than 200 people. And that was before a special prosecutor took charge of the case late last year.

Choi Soon-sil in court on Jan. 16.

Photographer: Kim Hong-ji/AFP via Getty Images

So far, 16 people have been formally indicted and are facing trial. Other high-profile figures -- most notably Samsung Group’s Jay Y. Lee, who denies wrongdoing -- remain under investigation.

Here’s a snapshot of the major legal developments related to the scandal.

Park’s Impeachment

  • WHO: The president
  • WHAT: The judges are considering whether to approve a Dec. 9 decision by parliament to impeach Park based on charges including violations of the constitution’s principle of popular sovereignty, abuse of authority and leaking classified information. Park denies wrongdoing.
  • WHEN: While the judges have as many as 180 days to decide on the impeachment motion, a verdict is expected in March.
  • WHERE: The Constitutional Court
  • WHY: Lawmakers from both parties moved to impeach after massive street protests in Seoul to demand her ouster.
  • HOW: If at least six of eight judges vote in favor of the impeachment, an election will be triggered in 60 days. After March 13, when one of the judges is set to leave the court, the motion will need six of seven votes to pass. If the decision is overturned, Park stays on until the end of her term in early 2018.

Special Prosecutor’s Investigation

Kim Ki-choon

Photographer: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images
  • WHO: Dozens of people are under investigation, including Samsung’s Lee and former top Park aide Kim Ki-choon-- both of whom deny wrongdoing.
  • WHAT: A 105-member team led by Park Young-soo, a former prosecutor, is probing allegations including whether companies donated money to Choi in return for favorable treatment by the government.
  • WHEN: The special prosecutor has until the end of March to wrap up its 120-day investigation into allegations of bribery, abuse of authority, money laundering, tax evasion, perjury and leaks of classified information.
  • WHERE: Cases will be heard at Seoul Central District Court
  • WHY: Lawmakers in November voted to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate over concerns that Park could influence the general prosecutor.
  • HOW: Five people have been indicted so far, including two members of the culture ministry and National Pension Service chairman Moon Hyung-pyo. Moon’s lawyer said the chairman denied the allegations, according to reports in Korean media.

Trials Underway

  • WHO: Prior to handing the case to the special prosecutor, authorities indicted 11 individuals including Park’s friend Choi and several of the president’s former aides.
  • WHAT: Charges against Choi -- the most high profile among those indicted -- include abuse of authority, coercion, attempt to destroy evidence and failed fraud attempt. She has denied the charges.
  • WHEN: Choi’s case is currently ongoing; it’s unclear when there might be a verdict.
  • WHERE: Seoul Central District Court
  • WHY: Prosecutors began investigating after local media reported that Choi secured unauthorized access to government documents and used her proximity to Park to coax large local companies into donating to her two foundations.
  • HOW: A panel of judges will deliver the verdict and sentence. She faces several years in prison if found guilty of all charges.
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