TOKYO — Embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that she would allow the National Assembly to determine her fate, signaling that she would resign over a corruption and influence-peddling scandal if lawmakers so demanded.
Relinquishing her previously defiant tone, Park struck a chastened note in her third televised address to the nation over the scandal, which has angered South Koreans and created a political vacuum.
“I have surrendered everything now,” Park said Tuesday from the presidential Blue House, while insisting that she had not done anything illegal and had never sought to enrich herself.
“I relegate the decision on my course of action, including reducing my term in office as the president, to the National Assembly,” she said. “If the ruling and opposition parties devise a plan for a stable transition of government that would minimize any confusion or gap in the state affairs, I will resign from the presidency according to such schedule and legal procedures.”
Park, South Korea’s first female president and the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee — who ruled with an iron fist in the 1960s and 1970s — has been under intense pressure to step down before her term expires in February 2018.
She is suspected of allowing her lifelong friend, Choi Soon-sil, to use their relationship to raise tens of millions of dollars from big businesses and letting her wield extensive influence over the running of the country. Choi has been indicted on charges of coercion, fraud and abuse of power, and prosecutors say Park was an accomplice to the crimes.
Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans protested in central Seoul on Saturday for the fifth weekend in a row, calling on Park to resign. The latest Gallup Korea poll put Park’s approval rating at 4 percent — the lowest it had ever recorded for any president since democratization in 1987.
But Park has remained defiant, with her attorney saying just on Monday that she was too busy to cooperate with the prosecutors who want to question her. She cannot be prosecuted while in office but she can be investigated, and charges could be laid against her once she steps down.
As such, Park’s announcement Tuesday took many by surprise.
“While it was not a formal resignation, there was an air of resignation,” said John Delury, a professor of political science at Yonsei University. “That’s new because we were hearing that she was in the bunker in the Blue House and was ready to fight this out.”
But others, including some opposition lawmakers, thought Park was trying to shift the problem onto the assembly, known as a fractious place.
“She’s made a really clever move,” said Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “She’s betting that the National Assembly will not be able to agree on what to do. It’s not a fight between Park and the assembly any more, it’s a fight within the assembly.”
Opposition parties in the National Assembly, with the support of dozens of lawmakers from Park’s Saenuri Party, were planning to bring a motion to impeach the president as soon as Friday. Analysts had said that there was a good chance the motion would succeed, as 40 Saenuri lawmakers had indicated they would support it, putting them over the two-thirds threshold needed to pass the motion.
But Park’s announcement will probably bring that process to a halt — and some in the main opposition Minjoo, or Democratic, party think it was Park’s intention to create a split within the pro-impeachment camp.
Some Saenuri lawmakers were indicating Tuesday that they would prefer to amend the constitution instead, allowing presidents to serve two four-year terms instead of the current five-year, one-term limit. This would bring Park’s term to an end in February.
To pass a constitutional amendment, more than a half of the 300 National Assembly members are required to support a bill. Then, within 60 days a vote would be held, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Yet if she were eased out this way it would enable Park to make a more dignified exit than becoming the first South Korean president to be impeached.
“I think she’s heading off the drawn-out humiliation of impeachment,” Delury said.
But Choi of the Asan Institute said that Park had severely misread the mood of the country and that her statement would do little to assuage the public anger. “There is still going to be strong resentment coming from the people,” he said. “She doesn’t understand why people are so disappointed in her.”
Indeed, protest organizers said they would press ahead with a demonstration planned for this Saturday.
Park was trying to pass the buck with “a political ploy to distract attention from impeachment,” said Ko Gye-hyun, a spokesman for some of the dozens of civic groups behind the protests. He called her move “a sign of her disrespect for the citizens.”
Plus, Choi, who has been indicted on charges including extortion and fraud, is accused of using her connection to the president to enrich herself and win favorable treatment for her family. Choi is alleged to have raised almost $70 million from big businesses including Samsung, the country’s flagship conglomerate, ostensibly for two foundations but actually for herself. Furthermore, Choi’s daughter seems to have won admission to a prestigious university, despite not meeting the requirements for entry.
The scandal continues to widen, with prosecutors last week raiding the headquarters of Samsung and other conglomerates including SK and Lotte, as well as the offices of the national pension fund and the university that Choi’s daughter attended.
Along the way, there have been numerous bizarre twists in this tale, notably the revelation last week that the presidential office had bought 364 erectile-dysfunction pills. A spokesman explained that they were for the president and aides to take in case they experienced altitude sickness while traveling abroad.