Denying Link to Cult, Park Fights to Hold Onto Power in Korea

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(Bloomberg) -- Park Geun-hye isn’t going down without a fight.

In an extraordinary national address on Friday, South Korea’s leader denied links to a religious cult and said she’d cooperate with investigators over allegations that her friend had undue influence over her administration. Earlier in the day, a poll showed that her public support had plummeted to the lowest of any South Korean president in history.

“I should be blamed for all of this -- I feel a great responsibility,” Park said on Friday, her voice breaking up in front of dozens of journalists. “Anyone found to be involved in wrongdoing in the investigation should take responsibility, and I myself am committed to taking responsibility.”

Her second public apology in as many weeks did little to placate opponents calling for her resignation, which would trigger an election in 60 days. The crisis threatens to leave South Korea rudderless at a time of sputtering economic growth and high-profile struggles at some of its biggest companies, potentially rattling the nation’s markets.

Despite the calls to step down, Park has little incentive to do so. As president, she enjoys immunity that would be relinquished upon resignation. It may take months for impeachment proceedings, and even longer before prosecutors bring formal charges.

To read about how the scandal is impacting Korea’s economy, click here.

“The political situation is absolutely desperate for Park,” said John Delury, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “She may have been trying to stem the hemorrhage by seeking to gain pity from a Korean audience.”

Part of that effort involved directly addressing rumors that have transfixed the nation about her friend Choi Soon-sil, who opposition lawmakers link to superstitious beliefs.

“There is speculation that I exercised a shamanism ritual at the presidential office and am in a religious cult,” Park said. “But I clearly say this is not true.”

Last week Park said that she shared “certain documents” with Choi, a long-time friend who is alleged to have meddled in state affairs. Choi was formally arrested late Thursday on charges of attempted fraud and abuse of authority. A former senior adviser at the heart of the scandal has also been detained.

Over the past week, Park has reshuffled her staff and dumped key cabinet ministers in a bid to sure up public support, to little avail. A Gallup Korea poll published Friday showed her approval rating nosediving to a record-low of 5 percent from 17 percent a week earlier.

South Korea’s stocks and currency have also slid recently. The benchmark Kospi index, among Asia’s worst performers over the past month, fell again on Friday, while the won slipped 0.4 percent as of 10:54 a.m. in Seoul, erasing this week’s gain.

Park’s opponents are starting to smell blood. A group of lawmakers in the Democratic Party of Korea on Thursday demanded the president’s “swift” resignation. Other potential presidential candidates have also called for her to step down, including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of the nation’s second-biggest opposition party.

To read about the mystery letter haunting Park, click here.

Park’s handling of the case has only worsened her position, according to Choi Chang-ryul, a professor of liberal arts at Yong In University. While polls show no clear favorite to replace Park if she were to leave, opposition parties may have little choice but to prepare for an early election even if they’re not ready to run, he said.

After Park’s remarks on Friday, Choo Mi-ae, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea -- the nation’s largest opposition group -- said her party will run a campaign to force the president out unless she accepts a special prosecutor in the case and withdraws her nomination for prime minister.

“The president is running right into a dead end," Choo said in a televised briefing. Driving home the point, Choo said that Park should “lie face down and wait to be punished.”

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