Park’s tea-time defense may be used against her

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Park’s tea-time defense may be used against her

President Park Geun-hye’s recent media event is a de facto admission of her role in the controversial merger of Samsung Group, said a source from the independent counsel team investigating the abuse of power scandal of the impeached leader.

“Park’s remarks didn’t mean that she was not involved or that she didn’t pay attention to the issue,” a senior official of the team of independent counsel Park Young-soo told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. “The remarks can be interpreted as her having advised the National Pension Service support the merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries by borrowing the term ‘policy decision.’”

He added, “And it didn’t stop there. She also met with Samsung separately and raised the issue of supporting the Korean Equestrian Federation, a special benefit for Choi Soon-sil and her daughter. There’s no other way to describe this than ‘abnormal.’”

Park was impeached on Dec. 9, 2016, for violating the Constitution and criminal laws by allowing her secret inner circle, including longtime friend, Choi, to interfere in state affairs, and for failing to properly respond to the Sewol ferry sinking, in which 304 passengers died after a delayed government response. She is also a target of an investigation by Independent Counsel Park and his team. A three-way bribery charge involving the Samsung Group, Park and Choi is the primary target of an investigation by the independent counsel.

The $8 billion merger between Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries allowed Samsung Group a generational ownership shift by solidifying heir apparent Lee Jae-yong’s grip on Samsung Electronics. Defeating a campaign by a U.S. hedge fund, Elliott Management Corp, to block the planned merger, shareholders of Samsung C&T approved its takeover by Cheil Industries on July 17, 2015.

The National Pension Service was the largest shareholder of Samsung C&T. Although advisory firms recommended that the pension fund vote against the merger, it went ahead and supported the deal, causing some to question whether there had been any undue influence over the decision.

Samsung Electronics was a generous supporter of Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, an equestrian athlete. It promised 22 billion won ($18.4 million) for her training. Samsung was also the largest benefactor of the two nonprofit foundations that Choi practically controlled, contributing 20.4 billion won.

The sponsorship and donations are suspected to be bribes paid in return for Park and Choi’s influence over the pension service to approve the deal.

Park invited reporters for a tea time on Sunday and spoke for 50 minutes, denying all accusations raised by the National Assembly, the prosecution and the independent counsel. She particularly denied her role in the controversial Samsung merger by saying, “I was completely weaved into the story.”

She went on to say that the merger was a popular issue at the time, and that she, as president, hoped the pension fund would deal with the issue “smoothly.” She also said the decision was a “judgement in policy.”

Despite Park’s attempt to defend herself, instead of submitting to investigators’ questioning or making a plea in the Constitutional Court, the independent counsel said Monday that it will decide later on how to proceed with a face-to-face interrogation of the president. Last year, Park promised to submit to the prosecution’s initial investigation into the scandal, but later refused to do so.

As Blue House sources said Park is thinking of having more similar events to defend herself, the independent counsel team is reviewing a plan to refute her comments in a media briefing. It also showed concern that other suspects and witnesses may coordinate their testimonies to match Park’s remarks.

Despite Park’s denial, more media reports accused Park of having met Lee and demanded support for Chung. According to JTBC’s exclusive report, Park met with Lee separately after they attended the launch ceremony of the Creative Economy Innovation Center in Daegu on Sept. 15, 2014.

Quoting sources from Samsung and the independent counsel team, JTBC reported that Park requested that Samsung Group head the equestrian federation. She specifically asked Lee that Samsung purchase good horses for the athletes and support their training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, they said. In March 2015, Samsung became chair of the federation. It signed a contract with Choi’s company to support Chung with a payment of over 20 billion won in August 2015.

JTBC also reported that Park had a one-on-one meeting with Lee 10 months after their Daegu meeting. During the meeting on July 25, 2015, Park complained that Samsung’s support was insufficient and pushed him to pay more attention.

She also pressured Lee to support a winter sports program, planned by Choi’s nephew. Samsung sources reportedly told the independent counsel that Park personally requested 1 billion won in support.

She also told Lee she wants a smooth settlement of Samsung’s transfer issue during her tenure, JTBC said. The independent counsel thinks that remark is proof of the bribery charge involving Park, Choi and Lee.

Other media outlets, including Hankyoreh newspaper, also reported Monday that Blue House documents prepared for Park’s meeting with Lee in July 2015 included the significance of the merger. “I hope Samsung’s ownership transfer issue will be resolved during my administration,” Park was supposed to say, according to the Blue House document quoted by the media reports.

After Park and Lee’s meeting, Samsung replaced its executives who oversaw the equestrian program. Park Sang-jin, Samsung Electronics president for corporate relations, hurriedly left for Germany, where Chung used to stay for training. He is the chairman of the equestrian federation.

During last month’s National Assembly hearing, lawmakers grilled Lee about why Samsung supported equestrian athletes, and Lee testified that he had no choice.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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