SEOUL: South Korea’s embattled president Park Geun-Hye replaced her prime minister and two other top cabinet members on Wednesday, in her latest bid to contain a damaging political scandal.
The move was part of a planned reshuffle of senior civil servants and ministers aimed at setting up a cross-party “neutral” cabinet and assuaging public anger with the president and her administration.
Park has been engulfed in a political storm over allegations that she allowed a long-time friend, who holds no political position, to meddle in affairs of state — including cabinet appointments.
The friend, Choi Soon-Sil, is currently being questioned under emergency detention by prosecutors over her links to Park and other allegations of influence-peddling and fraud.
A presidential spokesman said Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn had been replaced “in connection with the current situation” and added that the finance and public safety ministers were also being changed.
The new premier was named as Kim Byong-Joon, a former top aide to the late liberal president Roh Moo-Hyun.
The prime minister is a largely symbolic post in South Korea, where power is firmly concentrated in the presidency.
Suggestions that Choi Soon-Sil vetted presidential speeches and was given access to classified documents have exposed Park to public anger and ridicule and, with just over a year left in office, seen her approval ratings plunge into the single digits.
According to official sources cited by the Yonhap news agency, prosecutors were set to seek a formal arrest warrant against Choi later Wednesday.
In an effort to deflect some of the criticism, Park had been urged to create a neutral cabinet by bringing in members from outside her ruling conservative Saenuri Party.
But opposition parties have said they need to be consulted on any appointments and also insist that any reshuffle should be preceded by a full investigation of Park’s relationship with Choi.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea said Wednesday’s changes were purely cosmetic.
“People demanded that the president get rid of the Choi Soon-Sil-controlled cabinet, but this is just a second Choi Soon-Sil cabinet,” a spokesman for the Democratic Party said.
The media has portrayed the 60-year-old Choi as a Rasputin-like figure, who wielded an unhealthy influence over Park that continued after her presidential election victory in December 2012.
Choi is the daughter of late religious leader Choi Tae-Min, who was married six times, had multiple pseudonyms and set up his own cult-like group known as the Church of Eternal Life.
He befriended a traumatised Park after the 1974 assassination of her mother — whom he said had appeared to him in a dream. Park treated him as a mentor and subsequently formed a close bond with his daughter.
Earlier Wednesday, Choi Soon-Sil was seen entering the Seoul prosecutors office for a third day of questioning.
The YTN news channel showed footage of Choi, her face covered with a surgical mask and a dark coat covering her prison outfit, disembarking from a bus that brought her from the prison where she had spent a second night in custody.