South Korea's corruption scandal took another twist Monday, as Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn – acting as president since President Park Geun-hye's impeachment in December – refused special prosecutors permission to extend their investigation by 30 days.
The investigation team made the request to allow time for questioning of the impeached president, who has been temporarily stripped of her powers until the Constitutional Court decides whether or not to uphold her impeachment – a decision expected next month.
“After much deliberation,” said Hong Kwon-heui, a spokesman for Mr. Hwang, “the acting president has decided that it would be best for the country's stability to not extend the special investigation and for the prosecutors to take over.” These “prosecutors” are individual state prosecutors, as opposed to the “special prosecutors” whose investigation was slated to conclude, and likely now will, on Tuesday.
Soon after Mr. Hwang’s office issued the statement, however, the main opposition parties made their own announcement: They plan to now seek Hwang’s impeachment, as well.
Responding to Hwang’s decision to deny an extension to that wide-ranging investigation, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, Choo Mi-ae, said it was now clear that Hwang was seeking "to become Park's shield to protect her and her associates."
The situation has already thrown South Korean politics into turmoil, with the threat of the nation’s first democratically elected leader being permanently thrown from office and members of the highest levels of both politics and business enmeshed in the scandal. With that in mind, even though the three main liberal opposition parties have enough parliamentary seats to secure the majority required to impeach the acting president, it is unclear whether they would actually take that step. Some are wary of potential conservative backlash if they seek a second impeachment so soon.
Yet there is another aspect to the unfolding saga: people power. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have been taking to the streets in protest since the corruption scandal emerged. Some are Park's supporters, including those who blame North Korea for the country's current crisis, but many are demanding that the impeached president step down.
Indeed, the levels of public engagement and protest in the wake of this scandal represent “an enormous shift in a country that the UN Human Rights Committee warned last year was making ‘increasing use of criminal defamation laws to prosecute persons who criticize government action,’ ” as The Christian Science Monitor’s Michael Holtz reported in December.
“This is unprecedented,” Park Kyung-sin, a freedom of speech advocate and law professor at Korea University in Seoul, told Mr. Holtz. “I don't think people feel at all chilled or suppressed or reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation.”
As for Ms. Park, the former president, she remains immune from prosecution while she officially remains the country’s leader. But if the Constitutional Court decides to make her impeachment permanent, that would change – and South Korea would hold fresh presidential elections within 60 days.
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.