TOKYO — Prosecutors questioned South Korea’s impeached president, Park Geun-hye, for 14 hours Tuesday over a corruption scandal that led to her dismissal from office this month.
It was the first time she had answered any questions relating to the scandal, which has roiled South Korea for nearly six months and ensnared the head of Samsung, two former presidential aides, a prominent prosecutor and the head of the national pension fund, the world’s third largest.
After arriving at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday morning in a convoy fit for a president, Park made a six-second statement — her first public remarks since being impeached March 10.
“I deeply apologize to the people,” she told waiting reporters, striking a tone that contrasted sharply with her earlier defiance. “I will fully cooperate with the investigation.”
Now that she is out of office, Park, 65, has lost her immunity from prosecution and could face criminal charges, including abuse of power and coercing donations.
Park’s appearance at the prosecutors’ office started with a 10-minute cup of tea with a senior prosecutor. When the questioning began, the former president was cooperative and answered questions, although she declined to allow the session to be recorded, the prosecutors’ office said.
The session lasted until close to midnight. Park was then allowed to go home after reviewing documents about the questioning. Prosecutors did not indicate when they might call her again.
About 2,000 police officers were deployed outside the prosecutors’ office to guard against unrest. Although rival factions demonstrated — with supporters calling for Park’s impeachment to be overturned and opponents demanding her arrest — there were no reports of violence.
“Now, the question is whether the prosecution will arrest her or not,” the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers, wrote in an editorial published Wednesday. “Given her status as former president, the prosecution will wrestle with the question. Most people want her arrest as no one is above the law.”
Preparations are now underway for a snap election, scheduled for May 9, to replace Park. Moon Jae-in, a progressive politician who lost to Park in 2012, has a strong lead; polls show his support at 36 percent.
Conservatives are in disarray. Park’s ruling party split in two after her suspension, and the caretaker prime minister, thought to be the center-right faction’s best shot at maintaining the presidency, has declined to run.
Park, South Korea’s first female president, also became its first to be impeached after the country’s Constitutional Court unanimously concluded that she had “continuously” violated the law during her four years in office.
The court found that the president had helped her friend Choi Soon-sil extract bribes from South Korean conglomerates and had personally asked major corporations for donations. She leaked confidential documents to Choi, tried to cover up her wrongdoing, then lied about it, the court said.
The justices also chastised Park for refusing to speak to special prosecutors investigating the case and for declining to appear before the Constitutional Court to answer questions.
In a damning 101-page report delivered before the impeachment decision, special prosecutors identified 13 charges that could be brought against Park, including abuse of power, receiving bribes and leaking confidential government information.
Park has remained defiant even after her impeachment. Upon returning to her home in southern Seoul last weekend, she said in a statement read by a spokesman, “Though it may take time, I believe the truth will eventually prevail.”
The case revolves around Park’s relationship with Choi, a lifelong friend who held no official position and had no security clearance but wielded enormous influence over her.
Prosecutors found that Park and Choi had exchanged 573 phone calls in a six-month period — between April and October 2016, when the scandal broke — on cellphones registered under other people’s names. By contrast, Park’s former chief of staff has said he often went several weeks without talking to or seeing the president.
Choi is accused of scheming to extract $70 million in bribes from big business — including $37 million from Samsung — in return for granting favorable treatment to the corporate giants. Prosecutors say they have evidence that Park colluded with Choi in the scheme.
The special prosecutors have indicted 30 people in connection with the scandal, including business leaders, presidential aides and prosecutors. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung, has been detained and is on trial on charges including bribery, embezzlement and perjury.
Both he and Choi have strongly denied wrongdoing, as has the former president.