SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — In an extraordinary display of abject apology during a moment of supreme crisis, South Korean President Park Geun-hye took sole blame Friday for a “heartbreaking” scandal amid rising suspicion that she allowed a mysterious confidante to manipulate power from the shadows.
Park also vowed to accept a direct investigation into her actions, but the opposition, sensing weakness, immediately said that if she doesn’t accept a prime minster chosen by the parliament and withdraw from dealing with domestic affairs, it will push for her ouster.
“I feel a huge responsibility (for the scandal) deep in my heart,” Park said, her voice shaking during the televised address to the nation over a scandal that threatens her rule. “It is all my fault and mistake.”
Park’s comments were rife with astonishing moments and included a frank assessment of her relationship with the woman at the heart of the scandal, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader and a longtime friend of Park’s.
“I put too much faith in a personal relationship and didn’t look carefully at what was happening,” Park said. “Sad thoughts trouble my sleep at night. I realize that whatever I do, it will be difficult to mend the hearts of the people, and then I feel a sense of shame and ask myself, ‘Is this the reason I became president?’”
In another exceptional moment, Park denied media speculation that she had “fallen into worshipping cult religions or that shamanistic rituals were held at the presidential Blue House.”
President at a crossroads
Her comments come at what may well prove to be the crucial moment of her presidency. Park is attempting to show the contrition and sense of responsibility that South Koreans demand while re-establishing her tarnished credibility. She is in the fourth year of a single five-year term and faced criticism even before this scandal, particularly for the government’s response to a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people.
One national poll had her approval rating at 5 percent, the lowest for any leader in South Korea’s 68-year history.
“Anyone found by the current investigation to have done something wrong must be held responsible for what they have done, and I am also ready to face any responsibility,’’ Park said. “If necessary, I’m determined to let prosecutors investigate me and accept an investigation by an independent counsel too.”
Last week Park surprised many when she acknowledged that she had relied on Choi for help editing presidential speeches and other undefined public relations issues.
Anger has exploded in the days since, with media reports claiming that the influence Choi had went much deeper. There are reports that Choi reviewed and made recommendations on government policy papers, helped choose presidential aides and even picked out Park’s wardrobe.
Thousands have protested. Park has fired many of her senior aides and is replacing her prime minister.
Choi has been formally arrested, and the president’s nominee for prime minister, the country’s No. 2 job, has suggested that Park can be directly investigated, despite her immunity from prosecution.
Park said she couldn’t talk about many specifics because of the investigation, but she was frank in her comments about her involvement with Choi, who has been the subject of widespread rage.
Choi was “a person who stood with me during the hardest moment in my life,” Park said in her speech, apparently referring to the assassinations of Park’s mother and later her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee. “It’s true that I lowered my guard and my sense of wariness” of Choi.
In addition to allegations that Choi influenced Park behind the scenes, reports allege Choi pushed businesses to donate millions of dollars to two foundations that she controlled.
Only Choi has been formally arrested in connection with the scandal, but Wednesday night, prosecutors detained one of Park’s former senior presidential secretaries after summoning him for alleged involvement in extracting $70 million in donations. Prosecutors have 48 hours to determine whether to request an arrest warrant for Ahn Jong-beom or release him.
Park could be further weakened
Park has fired eight presidential aides and nominated three new top Cabinet officials, including the prime minister, in an effort to regain public confidence. Opposition parties have described Park’s personnel reshuffles as a tactic to divert attention from the scandal.
Park may survive what has become the worst patch of a rocky term. But if her choice for prime minister is rejected and she is forced to name someone chosen by the opposition, it will hamstring her authority and may end her ability to govern.
On Thursday, Park’s choice for prime minister, Kim Byong-joon, said at a news conference that he thinks it’s possible to have Park investigated, though he said the procedures and methods of any probe of the head of state must be carefully handled.