December 6, 2016 / 1:57 AM / 10 months ago

South Korea's Park digs in, as tycoons deny seeking favors

(L-R) CJ Group chairman Sohn Kyung-Shik, LG Group chairman Koo Bon-Moo, Hanhwa Group chairman Kim Seung-Youn, SK Group chairman Chey Tae-Won, Samsung Group's heir-apparent Lee Jae-Yong, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-Bin, Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang-Ho and Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-Koo take an oath during a parliamentary probe into a scandal engulfing President Park Geun-Hye at the National Assembly in Seoul on December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Park Geun-hye, engulfed in an influence peddling scandal, said if she was impeached she would wait for a court to uphold the decision, a party official said on Tuesday, a sign a political crisis could drag on for months.

Park’s embattled presidency faces a critical juncture, with parliament expected to hold an impeachment vote on Friday. Even if the motion is passed, it must be upheld by the Constitutional Court, a process that could take at least months.

Separately, South Korea’s most prominent corporate chiefs told a parliamentary panel they had not sought favors when they made contributions to two foundations at the heart of the scandal, even as one of them acknowledged it was hard to say “no” to the government.

“It’s a South Korean reality that if there is a government request, it is difficult for companies to decline,” said Huh Chang-soo, who heads the energy-to-retail GS Group and is also chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries, the main lobby group for the conglomerates known as chaebol.

Park, 64, is under intense pressure to resign immediately, with big crowds taking to the streets every Saturday calling for her ouster. Her approval rating is at a record low of 4 percent.

She would be the first democratically elected South Korean president not to serve a full five-year term.

She is accused of colluding with a friend and a former aide to pressure big business owners to pay into two foundations set up to back policy initiatives. She has denied wrongdoing but apologized for carelessness in her ties with the friend, Choi Soon-sil.

Park met leaders of her Saenuri party and top official Chung Jin-suk later said the president was willing to accept her party’s proposal that she step down in April - which has been rejected by the opposition - but gave no indication that she was willing to quit immediately.

“Unless she says she is resigning immediately, whatever she says won’t satisfy the public and won’t make the opposition drop their impeachment motion,” said Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership.

Opposition parties need at least 28 members from Park’s Saenuri Party for the impeachment bill to pass with a two-thirds majority. At least 29 of them are believed to be planning to vote for the bill, members of a breakaway faction said.

Last week, Park offered to step down and asked parliament to decide how and when she should resign, a move opposition parties rejected as a ploy to buy time and avoid impeachment.

Rhee Jong-hoon, a political commentator at iGM Consulting, said Park would fight in the Constitutional Court to overturn an impeachment hearing.

“And if the motion is overturned? She will remain in office until her term is finished. Nothing matters after the Constitutional Court rules against the impeachment bill.”

The heads of conglomerates controlling revenue equivalent to more than half the country’s economy were questioned over whether they were pressured by Park or Choi to give money to non-profit foundations, which backed initiatives put forth by Park, in exchange for special treatment.

‘HEAVY HEART’

Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee, who sat at the center of the witness table, said Park had asked him during one-on-one meetings for support for boosting cultural and sports-related developments but did not specifically request money.

“There are often requests from various parts of society including for culture and sports. We have never contributed seeking quid pro quo. This case was the same,” Lee said.

The 48-year-old Lee, the third-generation leader of the country’s biggest conglomerate who received the lion’s share of the panel’s often-hectoring questioning, said he was embarrassed by the situation and was appearing with a “heavy heart”.

Samsung donated 20.4 billion won ($17.46 million) to the two foundations, the most of any group, and prosecutors raided its offices last month.

The corporate titans ran a gauntlet of media and protesters as they entered the National Assembly for the first such parliamentary hearing featuring such a large group of chaebol bosses.

The family-controlled chaebol have long dominated Asia’s fourth-largest economy, working closely with the government in a system that helped the country rebuild from the ravages of the 1950-53 Korean War.

But the system, critics say, is due for reform, including improved corporate governance and transparency.

None of the chaebol has been accused of any wrongdoing in the case, but a protester outside the assembly held a sign saying: “Arrest the chaebol chiefs”.

Reporting by Se Young Lee, Yun Hwan Chae, Jack Kim, Hyunjoo Jin, Ju-min Park, Jeong Eun Lee and Nataly Pak; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Robert Birsel

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