Former President Park Geun-hye stared straight ahead in court today and denied that she engaged in bribery and leaking government secrets at the start of a criminal trial that could send South Korea’s first female leader to prison for life if convicted. Police escorted Park, in handcuffs with her eyes downcast, into court for her first public appearance since she was jailed on March 31 based on the same corruption allegations that led to her removal from office.
Cameras flashed as Park emerged from a bus, her inmate number 503 attached to her dark-colored jacket, and walked into the Seoul Central District Court. Her hands were then un-cuffed, and she entered the courtroom and sat before a three-judge panel while a throng of journalists captured images, often in extreme close up, of her somber face.
When Judge Kim Se-yun asked Park, “What is your occupation?” she replied: “I don’t have any occupation.”
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Her longtime confidante, and the woman she is accused of conspiring with, Choi Soon-sil, sat near Park. The two had been friends for four decades but did not acknowledge each other.
Choi sobbed as she answered questions about her address and occupation. But Park stared straight ahead as prosecutors read out the charges.
“The accused Park Guen-hye, in collusion with her friend Choi Soon-sil, let Choi, who had no official position, intervene in state affairs … and they abused power and pressured business companies to offer bribes, thus taking private gains,” said senior prosecutor Lee Won-seok.
Park’s lawyer, Yoo Young-ha, denied any wrongdoing. Asked whether she had anything to add, Park said in a calm, measured voice: “I will say afterward.”
The judge also directly asked Park whether she denies all charges. “Yes,” Park replied, “I have the same position as the lawyers.”
Choi, according to local media, said in court: “I am a sinner for forcing former President Park, who I have known and watched for 40 years, to appear in a courtroom.” She also said, “I hope this trial truly frees former President Park of fault and lets her be remembered as a president who lived a life devoted to her country.”
The trial has captivated many here; local TV channels repeatedly replayed the video of Park walking into the courtroom and sitting before the judges.
“I am here to witness a new chapter of history being unfurled,” spectator Lee Jae-bong, 70, told a pool reporter. “I think Park must be punished thoroughly and never be pardoned so that such a bad thing may never happen again.”
Park’s arrest came weeks after she was removed from office in a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which upheld her December impeachment by lawmakers after massive street protests over the corruption allegations emerged last October.