TOKYO — Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye was arrested early Friday and taken to a detention center so she could be questioned further in the corruption scandal that forced her from office three weeks ago.
It was another dramatic turn in the life of the 65-year-old, who was considered a political princess because of her family’s tragic history long before she became South Korea’s first female president.
Park was taken to a detention center outside Seoul at 4:30 a.m. local time to be held in a 70-square-foot cell, where she will be given $1.30 meals on metal trays while she is questioned about her role in the scandal.
Prosecutors have identified 13 imprisonable charges that could be laid against Park, including bribery, abuse of power, coercion and leaking government secrets. Park lost her immunity from prosecution when South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment on March 10 after concluding that she had “continuously” violated the law.
The former president continued to deny all wrongdoing during a 14-hour interrogation last week, leading prosecutors to ask for a warrant for her arrest. They said they were concerned Park would destroy evidence if she remained at large.
The Seoul Central District Court agreed this was a risk and issued a warrant early Friday. Park, who had been present in the court during the nine-hour hearing and was waiting at the prosecutors’ office for the decision, was immediately taken to the detention center.
TV footage from outside the detention center showed crowds of Park’s supporters, some waving American flags, flanked by police.
Choi Soon-Sil, Park’s lifelong friend and confidante who is at the center of this scandal, is being held at the same detention center, as is Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung. Both are on trial and strongly deny any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors allege that Choi used her friendship with the president to extract $70 million in bribes from conglomerates as kickbacks for business favors, and that the former president colluded in the scheme.
Lee is accused of giving or promising to give Choi $37 million to ensure government support for the merger of two Samsung units — crucial for the Samsung scion to retain control of South Korea’s biggest conglomerate.
Park became the third South Korean president to be arrested. But the previous two were former generals who held office immediately before and after South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987.
It is another landmark development in the history of South Korean democracy and in Park’s life.
Park lived in the Blue House — the president’s office and residence — as a child, while her father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, was president.
When Park Geun-hye was 22, her mother was killed by a North Korean sympathizer who was trying to assassinate her father, and Park effectively became first lady. Five years later, Park Chung-hee was killed by his own spy chief.
As a result, Park Geun-hye, who continues to wear the hairstyle favored by her mother in the 1970s, has been seen as a tragic figure by some.
Older conservatives who were nostalgic for her father’s era, when South Korea industrialized at an astonishing pace, formed the base of support that helped return Park to the Blue House in 2013.
But she soon fell afoul of the general public, accused of mishandling the Sewol ferry disaster that killed 304 people a year into her tenure.
That sowed the seeds for the anger that erupted last year when reports began to emerge of a huge corruption and influence-peddling scheme at the very top tiers of government and business.