Prosecutors expand foundation probe to 15-person team

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Prosecutors expand foundation probe to 15-person team

Prosecutors on Thursday formed a special investigation team and appointed head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, Lee Young-ryeol, to run its high-profile probe into President Park Geun-hye’s longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil.

The country’s top prosecutor, Kim Soo-nam, gave an order to expand the seven-member team into a special task force of 15 prosecutors devoted to investigating the so-called Choi-gate. The launch of the special team came amid growing criticism that the prosecution was dragging its feet about getting to the bottom of the case, which has become explosive enough to undermine the legitimacy of the Park administration. Many questions center on why it took a month after the case was submitted for prosecutors to raid the offices of two foundations, which are suspected to have been virtually created by Choi, and her residence.

To ensure its independence, the prosecution said the special team will directly report to the top prosecutor without having to go through a chain of command.

Prosecutors raided Thursday the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and offices belonging to the directors of the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations, a day after the first raid into the two foundations since the probe began three weeks ago. Standing before reporters, Lee, the head of the special team, said, “As public suspicion has escalated, I will commit myself to finding the truth.”

He added that he felt great duty in dealing with the case. When asked if President Park could be subject to questioning, he said she has presidential immunity from criminal prosecution.

The prosecution’s decision to expand the size of its team came a day after the ruling Saenuri and the major opposition Minjoo parties agreed to launch an independent council, although they remain at odds over how the council will be created. Saenuri is calling for a seven-member committee to recommend two candidates to the president, who would then appoint one of them to lead the council. Minjoo is against letting Park pick the council chief and prefers enacting a law to decide who will lead the council and how long the investigation will run. Under the system advocated by Saenuri, the investigation period can run up to 90 days, whereas under the one advocated by Minjoo, it can be extended without limit by bipartisan agreement.

University student and professor groups throughout the country have expressed anger over the scandal, with some going so far as to demand Park’s resignation and that the National Assembly should impeach her.

Six college students staged a rally at the Bexco exhibition center in Busan where Park was delivering a speech marking the Day of Local Autonomy. They demanded her resignation and called for her impeachment before police stopped them and kept two of them for questioning while releasing the other four.

A group of nearly 80 professors at Kyungpook National University issued a joint declaration of national emergency Thursday, blaming Park for Choi’s alleged meddling in state affairs and calling on her to step down. A group of 32 professors at Sungkyunkwan University also issued a statement, calling on Park to reshuffle her entire cabinet and form a coalition government with the opposition parties. University student bodies have joined calls denouncing Park, including those at Hanyang University, Ewha Womans University and Sogang University, while more student bodies are expected to follow suit. Candlelight vigils are also expected to fill the streets of Seoul and elsewhere this weekend.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, HYUN IL-HOON [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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