SEOUL, South Korea - Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Seoul’s streets on Saturday demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye amid an explosive political scandal, in what may be South Korea’s largest protest since it shook off dictatorship three decades ago.
Police said about 260,000 people turned out for the latest mass rally against Park, whose presidency has been shaken by suspicion that she let a shadowy longtime confidante manipulate power from behind the scenes. Protest organizers estimated the crowd at 1 million.
Waving banners and signs, a sea of demonstrators jammed streets stretching about a kilometer (half a mile) from City Hall to a large square in front of an old palace gate for several hours, roaring and applauding to speeches calling for Park’s ouster.
Protesters also marched on a road in front of the palace gate and near the Blue House, the mountainside presidential office and residence, carrying candles, blowing horns and banging drums, while shouting “Park Geun-hye, resign!”
Bae Dong-san, a 45-year-old man, said Park’s government has “worsened the living conditions of workers, completely messed up state governance and monopolized state affairs with her secret inner circle.”
“It feels much better to shout together with many other people,” he said.
Despite rising public anger, opposition parties have yet to seriously push for Park’s resignation or impeachment over fears of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively impacting next year’s presidential election. However, they have threatened to campaign for Park’s resignation if she doesn’t distance herself from state affairs.
The protest on Saturday was the largest in the capital since June 10, 2008, when police said 80,000 people took part in a candlelight vigil denouncing the government’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports amid mad cow fears. Organizers estimated that crowd at 700,000. In the summer of 1987, millions rallied in Seoul and other cities for weeks before the then-military government caved in to demands for free presidential elections.
Train and express bus tickets to Seoul were difficult to get from some areas Friday evening and Saturday morning, with the protest reportedly drawing tens of thousands of people from other cities.
“I have never been interested in politics and I don’t even have a TV at home … but unbelievable things have been happening and I came out today because I didn’t want to feel defeated as a South Korean citizen,” said Cho Jong-gyu, who took a five-hour bus ride from the small southern island of Geoje to participate in the rally, where he quietly held a cardboard sign calling for Park to resign.
Lee Ryeo-hwa, a Seoul resident who brought her three children to the rally, the youngest of them hanging on her front in a baby carrier, said Park had to go because she “created this mess with her undemocratic leadership style and refusal to communicate.”
“People said it was a bad idea to bring my kids here, but I want them to remember today … and learn that democracies are built on participation,” Lee said.
In addition to allegedly manipulating power, the president’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late cult leader who emerged as Park’s mentor in the 1970s, is also suspected of exploiting her presidential ties to bully companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to foundations she controlled.
In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Park said Tuesday that she would let the opposition-controlled parliament choose her prime minister. But opposition parties say her words are meaningless without specific promises about transferring much of her presidential powers to a new No. 2.
Moon Jae-in, a lawmaker from the main opposition Minjoo Party who lost to Park in the 2012 presidential election, has even demanded that Park surrender her authority to command South Korea’s military.
The opposition is also demanding a separate investigation into the scandal by a special prosecutor.
Prosecutors have arrested Choi, one of her key associates and two former presidential aides who allegedly helped Choi interfere with government decisions and amass an illicit fortune at the expense of businesses.
On Saturday, prosecutors summoned a senior executive of Samsung Electronics, South Korea’s largest company, which is under suspicion of spending millions of dollars illicitly financing the equestrian training of Choi’s daughter. They had raided the company’s headquarters in southern Seoul on Tuesday.
On Friday, prosecutors summoned the chairman of POSCO over allegations that Choi and her associates tried to forcibly take over the shares of an advertising company previously owned by the steelmaker.
The increasingly strange scandal surrounding Choi has inspired rumors to fly and left her accused of everything from influencing national security decisions to swaying the careers of pop singers to swinging construction deals for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Under South Korea’s criminal litigation law, which requires suspects to be either indicted or released within 20 days of their arrest, prosecutors have until Nov. 20 to formally charge Choi.
Ahn Jong-beom, Park’s former senior secretary for policy coordination, who allegedly pressured companies into donating large funds to two nonprofits Choi controlled, could also be indicted by the end of next week, said a prosecution official, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules.
There is also a possibility that prosecutors will eventually investigate Park, who in a televised apology last week said she would accept a direct investigation into her actions. Under South Korean law, the president has immunity from prosecution except in cases of treason, but she can be investigated.
Park has 15 months left in her term. If she steps down before the end of it, an election must be held within 60 days.