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Asia

Thousands calls for South Korean president to resign

Tens of thousands of protestors have descended on South Korea's capital demanding the president's resignation. The embattled South Korean leader is fending off accusations of links to a shadowy corrupt operative.

One of the largest anti-government protests in years began in earnest on Saturday as South Koreans poured into the streets of downtown Seoul, using words including "treason" and "criminal" to demand that President Park Geun-hye step down amid an explosive political scandal.

At the core of the brouhaha is a close personal friend of the president, Choi Soon-sil, who has been arrested for fraud, and also stands accused of meddling in state affairs - including official appointments and policy decisions - despite holding no official position in government.

That's sparked a crisis shattering public trust in Park's judgment and leadership, and her approval rating has plunged to just 5 percent - a record low for a sitting president in South Korea.

For her part, the president made an emotional televised address to the nation Friday in which she tried to court sympathy. She spoke of her loneliness and "heartache" at the explosion of public anger in recent weeks.

If the numbers of people in the streets are any indicator, she miscalculated the public mood. "Her speech made me even more angry," 44-year-old Park Mee-Hee, who was marching with her teenage daughter, told the AFP news agency. "She kept making ridiculous excuses as if she was totally innocent. She should step down right now."

Authorities said more than 40,000 people turned out for Saturday's candlelight rally - more than double the size of a similar anti-Park protest the week before. Police used dozens of buses and trucks to create tight perimeters in streets around the square in front of the palace gate to close off paths to the presidential office and residence. Thousands of officers dressed in fluorescent yellow jackets and full riot gear stood in front of and between the vehicles as they closely monitored the protesters.

Südkorea Demo gegen Präsidentin Park (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Heon-Kyun)

South Koreans sit in front of a phalanx of police with banners reading 'Park Geun-Hye Out' during a protest against the South Korean president in Seoul, South Korea on November 5, 2016.

Choi was formally arrested on Thursday on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power, but public anger has largely focused on the allegations that she interfered in government affairs. The South Korean media has portrayed the 60-year-old Choi, whose late father was a shadowy religious leader and an important mentor to Park, as a Rasputin-like figure who wielded an unhealthy influence over the president. "What is really irritating is the fact that Choi was acting like a regent for Park, controlling her decision-making," 20-year-old political science student Kim Do-Hyun told the AFP news agency.

The Seoul Central District Court said in a statement on Sunday that it granted warrants to prosecutors to arrest two former advisers to the president. An Chong-bum, a former senior advisor for Park, faces charges of abuse of power and attempted extortion. An was already in custody under an emergency detention order. A warrant was issued for the arrest of a second former aide, Jeong Ho-seong, who has also been held in temporary custody.

Park has reshuffled ministers and senior advisers, bringing in figures from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party. In her televised address, she agreed to be questioned by prosecutors investigating the charges against Choi, and sought to portray herself as an over-trusting friend who had let her guard down at a moment of weakness. 

"I trusted my personal relationship, but was careless and not tough enough with my acquaintances," she said.

The criminal investigation is focused on allegations that Choi leveraged her close relationship with the president to coerce local firms into donating large sums to dubious non-profit foundations that she then used for personal gain.

Watch video 00:53

An affair of politics and cult swirls in Seoul

Despite the mass protests and public apologies, Park is seen as unlikely to resign with just over a year of her single term in office left to run. But South Korea's main opposition party has threatened to agitate for her ouster unless she devolves more of her extensive executive powers, but it is wary of forcing an early presidential election it would not be confident of winning. If she does resign, South Korean laws require the country to hold a new election within 60 days.

jar/sms (AFP, AP)

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