March 21, 2017 / 2:26 PM / 9 months ago

With no script, marathon questioning is beyond comfort zone for South Korea's Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - Park Geun-hye’s hairdresser came as usual on Tuesday morning to coif the former South Korean president’s hair in the cropped chignon style favored by her mother, before she was assassinated more than four decades ago.

FILE PHOTO: South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

Emerging from her secluded home in Seoul’s Gangnam neighborhood for the first time since leaving the presidential Blue House nine days earlier, Park squinted in the bright morning light at the hundreds of supporters gathered outside.

“A lot of people came out,” she said, waving goodbye before driving off in a motorcade to meet prosecutors for a marathon interrogation that could lead to criminal charges. If convicted, she could be put behind bars for years.

It had to be a daunting prospect for a 65-year-old woman dubbed the “notebook princess” for her privileged upbringing and reliance on prepared scripts for public appearances.

“She must be miserable and may want to kill herself - it’s so heart-breaking,” said Park Sung-hye, a supporter who stood vigil outside her home overnight to see her off.

It’s an all-too-familiar story to Koreans.

In 2009, former president Roh Moo-hyun was questioned by prosecutors about corruption allegations involving his family. Soon afterward, he jumped from a mountain cliff behind his home, leaving a suicide note that read: “there are too many people suffering because of me”.

ANSWERING CALMLY

Park apologized - as she has done repeatedly since the scandal broke in October - when she arrived at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office.

“I am sorry to the people,” she told reporters outside. “I will respond faithfully to the investigation.”

At the 10th-floor interrogation room, accompanied by two of her seven lawyers, she declined prosecutors’ request to have her testimony videotaped, a senior prosecutor told reporters during a break six hours into questioning.

Sometimes not recording the testimony helps a suspect relax and volunteer more information, he said. She answered questions calmly and never invoked her right to refuse to answer questions that could incriminate her, he added.

Park has said little publicly about the scandal.

She was ousted from office on March 10 over allegations she conspired with longtime friend Choi Soon-sil to raise millions of dollars for foundations from the country’s conglomerates, known as chaebol.

Choi and Samsung Group’s head, Jay Y. Lee, grandson of the conglomerate’s founder, are both on trial in the scandal.

Park’s lawyers say they will argue in her defense that she did not gain personally from the chaebol contributions to the foundations, which prosecutors say were run for the sake of private interests under the control of Choi, and did not pressure business leaders.

The 33 prosecutors working on the case will almost certainly file an arrest warrant for Park, said Kim Kyung-soo, a retired prosecutor who interrogated two former military presidents after their arrests in 1995 for treason and bribery.

“Everybody else in the scandal was arrested who had sort of supporting roles,” Kim said in a telephone interview. “They are the arms and legs and Park is the main body. It’s hard to tell, but it won’t be easy not to detain her.”

The team of prosecutors would have been working day and night since the constitutional court decision that ousted her from the presidency on March 10, brainstorming questions and possible answers from her, Kim added.

TURBULENT PRESIDENCYThe scandal caps a turbulent presidency and a tragic life for Park, who came to power in the 2012 election under the banner of a conservative party.

Liberals vilified her as the daughter of military president Park Chung-hee, who took power in a 1961 coup. An older generation of Koreans, who looked upon her father’s presidency as the time the economy took off, embraced her.

She was 22 when a North Korean sympathizer killed her mother in an assassination attempt against her father in 1974, making her the de facto first lady. Five years later, Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his intelligence chief.

She never married and has maintained a distance from her siblings and personal acquaintances since moving into her childhood home - the presidential Blue House - in 2013.

“I’ve lived by myself, lonely,” she said in a tearful public apology in November for the scandal that doomed her presidency.

Park’s leadership had begun to ebb well before, when she faced public anger over her handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people, mostly school children.

A parliamentary panel looking into the influence-peddling scandal last December also probed “the missing seven hours” between the first news reports of the ferry disaster and Park’s first TV appearance that day.

South Korean media reported that a hairdresser from Toni&Guy in Gangnam, the same salon that did her hair on Tuesday, had spent 90 minutes styling Park’s hair during the seven hours.

Park’s office said the appointment lasted just 20 minutes, during which Park received official briefings.

Writing by Bill Tarrant

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