Ousted South Korean President's Corruption Trial Opens

By Eun-Young Jeong Features Dow Jones Newswires

The trial of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye began less than three months after she was removed from office as part of a sweeping corruption scandal.

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Tuesday's court hearing marks the beginning of a closely watched trial that follows months of public protests, parliamentary hearings and the arrests of some of the country's most prominent figures, including Samsung Electronics Co. Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong.

Ms. Park, making her first public appearance in nearly two months, was handcuffed and escorted by a police officer into Seoul Central District Court. A small white badge was pinned to her lapel bearing her prisoner number, 503.

Also on trial are Ms. Park's erstwhile friend Choi Soon-sil and Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of Lotte Group, the country's fifth-largest conglomerate.

The first few minutes of Ms. Park's trial were televised. She sat one seat away from Ms. Choi, whose alleged influence over Ms. Park sits at the heart of the scandal that brought down her conservative government.

It marked the first time the two women are believed to have been in the same room since the corruption scandal swept the country late last year. Ms. Park entered the courtroom with a placid expression and didn't exchange glances with Ms. Choi.

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When asked by the judge what her job is, Ms. Park replied: "I don't have any occupation." Ms. Park, Ms. Choi and Mr. Shin denied all charges against them.

"I feel very sorry for causing President Park to stand trial like this. President Park is not a person who could be lured by any bribes," Ms. Choi said through tears.

In April, prosecutors indicted Ms. Park on 18 charges including bribery, extortion, abuse of authority and leaking confidential government information. That month, Ms. Choi, who has been accused largely of meddling in state affairs, was indicted on additional charges, including colluding with Ms. Park to extract money from the Lotte and SK business empires.

According to prosecutors, Ms. Park wrongfully used her position as president to extort 77.4 billion South Korean won ($69 million) from 18 conglomerates through two foundations they say are controlled by Ms. Choi.

Mr. Shin, the Lotte Group chairman, is the second conglomerate head to be indicted, after Samsung's Mr. Lee, who was jailed in February and indicted the following month on allegations of bribing Ms. Park. According to prosecutors, Mr. Lee paid the bribes in return for the government's backing of business deals, including a merger of two Samsung companies in 2015. Mr. Lee's trial began last month. Mr. Lee has denied wrongdoing.

The court has completed one trial in connection with the scandal: that of Ms. Park's cosmetic surgeon, Kim Young-jae, who was given a suspended prison sentence of 18 months for lying under oath and for devising false medical records after treating Ms. Park.

South Korea's national corruption scandal has put a renewed focus on the close ties between the country's business and political elites.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was voted into office this month on a wave of public outrage against South Korea's powerful family-run conglomerates, known as chaebols. Mr. Moon has pledged to curb the chaebols' dominance through corporate-governance overhauls. A spokesman for Mr. Moon declined to comment on the trial.

Amid a raft of allegations stemming from the corruption scandal, the country has been transfixed by Ms. Park's relationship with Ms. Choi.

Ms. Park, 65 years old, is the daughter of South Korea's longest-serving president, Park Chung-hee, a military ruler who set South Korea on a path of rapid economic development while suppressing democracy and human rights.

Ms. Park stepped into the political limelight as the country's first lady in 1974 after her mother was shot and killed by a North Korean sympathizer attempting to assassinate Ms. Park's father.

The former president's friendship with Ms. Choi stretches back four decades, when Ms. Choi's father, a six-times-married Buddhist monk turned quasi-Christian mystic, became close to Ms. Park.

During a televised apology in October, Ms. Park described Ms. Choi as a close friend who "helped her during difficult times in the past."

Ms. Choi, through her lawyer, described Ms. Park as someone she "respects and looks up to."

Under South Korean law, Ms. Park, who was arrested on March 31, can remain under state custody for up to six months without a court sentence.

Write to Eun-Young Jeong at Eun-Young.Jeong@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 24, 2017 06:31 ET (10:31 GMT)