SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors arrested the culture minister on Saturday, on suspicion of abuse of power for drawing up a blacklist of artists, writers and entertainers critical of the country’s impeached president, Park Geun-hye.
Cho Yoon-sun became the first sitting minister ever to be arrested, the special prosecutor’s team said, before she was taken in for questioning in the afternoon, refusing to speak to reporters.
Cho, 50, had offered to quit, Yonhap news agency reported, adding that Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, serving as acting president while the Constitutional Court decides what happens to President Park, would accept her resignation quickly.
A corruption scandal, which is still unfolding, led to parliament impeaching Park last month. She could become the first democratically elected leader to be removed from office if the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment.
Park supporters braved the snow on Saturday to complain about the impeachment, penned in by scores of police whose buses were used as barricades. An anti-Park rally was expected later in the day in what has become a routine weekend event in recent months.
Faced with a spreading political crisis, the government and state entities used the blacklist as “guidelines” to penalise artists and censor content, the special prosecutor’s office told reporters last week.
Seoul Central District Court said on Saturday in a text message to reporters that minister Cho was arrested because her crime had been “verified and there were concerns over destruction of evidence”.
The special prosecutor’s office on Wednesday asked the court to issue warrants to arrest Cho and a former presidential chief of staff on suspicion of abuse of power and perjury.
The former chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, was also arrested.
The same court on Thursday refused to grant an arrest warrant for the head of Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate, on charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury amid the corruption scandal.
The reprieve for Jay Y. Lee, 48, may only be temporary, as the prosecutors said they would pursue the case.
The prosecution team questioned Cho and Kim this week over allegations that they created the blacklist of actors, writers and other cultural figures considered critical of the current administration, which both have publicly denied.
Park has been accused by legal authorities and lawmakers of putting pressure on the entertainment industry in retaliation against satirical attacks and criticism. The allegations have evoked bad memories of the oppression suffered when Park’s late father, Park Chung-hee, ruled the country. [L4N1F81T1]
The presidential Blue House denies that such a blacklist exists. Culture Minister Cho has said many times that she has heard reports of such a list but that she had nothing to do with it.
Park was impeached by parliament in December after accusations that she colluded with long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back the president’s policy initiatives.
Park, 64, remains in office but has been stripped of her powers while the Constitutional Court decides whether to uphold the impeachment.
The special prosecutor’s office said on Friday it summoned Samsung Electronics Co Ltd Executive Vice President Hwang Sung-soo for questioning. It did not elaborate.
Hwang is the fifth Samsung Group executive the prosecutor has summoned.
Samsung Electronics is the flagship company of Samsung Group and is the world’s top manufacturer of smartphones, memory chips and flat-screen televisions.
A Samsung Group spokesman declined to comment. Hwang was not available for comment.
The special prosecutor’s office is investigating whether the conglomerate paid bribes to Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-sil, to win support from the National Pension Service for the 2015 merger of two Samsung Group affiliates.
Park and Choi have denied wrongdoing. Samsung has acknowledged making contributions to entities controlled by Choi but has denied accusations of lobbying to push through the merger.
In another scandal indirectly affecting South Korea, the United States has asked Seoul to arrest a brother of former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on charges that he engaged in a bribery scheme to carry out the sale of a Vietnamese building complex.
Ban, who is ranked second in opinion polls among potential candidates for South Korean president, said in Seoul he knew nothing about the case but issued an apology for family members who have caused public concern.
Editing by Nick Macfie & Simon Cameron-Moore