Ferry tragedy probed as S. Korea impeachment hearing opens

By Hwang Sunghee, AFP

SEOUL — South Korea’s scandal-hit president was asked to clarify the mystery surrounding her whereabouts at the time of a disastrous 2014 ferry sinking Thursday, as the Constitutional Court opened her impeachment hearing. Parliament voted to impeach Park Geun-hye earlier this month over a corruption scandal in which she allegedly colluded with a friend to strong-arm donations from large conglomerates to two dubious foundations. She is also accused of ordering aides to leak state documents to friend Choi Soon-sil, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in state affairs including the appointment of top officials. The case is now being considered by the Constitutional Court which has 180 days to rule on the validity of the impeachment. Justice Lee Jin-sung rejected an apparent attempt by Park’s lawyers to stall the hearing, instead launching into questions over where she was in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster that left more than 300 people dead. “I’m sure the president herself will know best what she did on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster,” Lee said. “We request that she provide all details.”

Park’s response to the tragedy was one of the issues cited when parliament voted for her impeachment and Park faces growing pressure to explain what she was doing on the day. Questions have been raised over Park’s activities during a seven-hour period after she was initially informed of the sinking and before her first appearance at an official meeting to discuss the government’s response. Unconfirmed media reports have suggested a wide range of theories about Park’s whereabouts, including a romantic liaison, participation in a shamanistic ritual, cosmetic surgery or, most recently, a 90-minute haircut. Massive demonstrations have been taking place in Seoul and other cities every Saturday for the past two months, with protestors calling for Park’s immediate departure from office. The impeachment process was ignited and fueled by public outrage at Park’s behavior, with the weekly mass protests demanding that politicians take a proactive role in removing her from the presidential Blue House. The National Assembly has played its part, but the country now faces a lengthy period of uncertainty at a time of slowing economic growth and elevated military tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.