South Korea president’s office block prosecutors’ searches

South Korea president's office block prosecutors' searches

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — Aides to South Korean President Park Geun-hye turned away prosecutors trying to search her official compound on Friday, a confrontation that highlights the high stakes at play as investigators look into a scandal that knocked her from power.

Prosecutors want to question Park and search the presidential Blue House for more information about events that led to her impeachment in December. Park has said she’s willing to be questioned, but her office maintains that a law blocks searches in areas with official secrets.

On Friday, a team of 20 prosecutors and investigators attempted to enter the Blue House in downtown Seoul after receiving a court-issued search warrant. But Blue House officials didn’t let them in, saying they were able to hand over documents to prosecutors, but not give them entrance.

Television stations showed the prosecutors waiting inside cars in a parking lot within the Blue House compound. After several hours, the prosecution team members withdrew.

They expressed regret and asked for help from Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who became government caretaker after Park’s presidential powers were suspended. There was no immediate response from Hwang, who works in a government building near the Blue House.

It was not immediately clear whether the Blue House’s decision to ignore the search warrant, which is valid until Feb. 28, was legal.

The law cited by the Blue House prohibits searches of areas with state secrets without the approval of those in charge of those areas. But the law also says those in charge must approve searches unless they would undermine the national interest.

Legal experts say rejections of searches should only apply to areas handling confidential information, not an entire compound.

Prosecutors said the areas they want to search include the offices of the presidential secretaries for civil and economic affairs. The Blue House did not explain why a search would undermine the national interest, prosecution spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said.

Presidential spokesman Jung Youn-kuk said prosecutors had wanted to search 10 sites, most of which deal with state secrets. He said sensitive military information is scattered throughout the Blue House compound, which he said includes military facilities and an army unit.

The Blue House also cited the law in rejecting a search attempt by prosecutors in October. The prosecutors were then given Blue House documents outside the compound, before they handed over the investigation of the scandal to a team led by an independent counsel.

Park faces allegations that she let a confidante, Choi Soon-sil, manipulate government affairs and extort money from businesses. Choi, who has never had a government post, and several of Park’s presidential advisers have been arrested on related charges.

The constitutional Court is deciding whether to formally unseat Park or restore her power. If she is forced out, a new election would be held within two months to choose her successor.

Hyung-Jin Kim, The Associated Press