SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A scandal that has captivated a nation took a new twist this weekend when prosecutors directly linked South Korea's president to alleged misdeeds by a shadowy confidante seen as pulling government strings.
With hundreds of thousands taking to the streets each weekend in anger, President Park Geun-hye is digging in her heels, refusing to meet with prosecutors. The looming question now is: Will legislators take the politically risky path of impeaching her?
Here are several things to know about the troubles mounting around Park:
A NEW TWIST
The scandal centers on Choi Soon-sil, Park's friend for about 40 years and the daughter of a late cult leader.
Choi, who has no official role in Park's administration, allegedly pulled government strings from the shadows and, with the help of two Park aides, used her ties to the president to pressure companies to donate millions of dollars to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.
Prosecutors on Sunday indicted Choi and the two former presidential advisers on Sunday. Investigators also said they believe Park conspired in the criminal activities.
According to documents submitted by prosecutors to the court, Park allegedly ordered Choi and one of Park's ex-aides last year to collect money from businesses to help support the launch of the two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.
Prosecutors also say in the court documents, which were revealed to South Korean media, that another ex-presidential aide allegedly passed dozens of confidential presidential documents to Choi, at Park's order. Those sensitive documents include high-profile personnel appointments and secret military talks with North Korea before Park took office, according to South Korean media.
Park's office and her lawyer called the accusations groundless.
WILL SHE BE IMPEACHED?
The prosecutors' announcement provides Park's liberal rivals and dissidents in her own conservative ruling party with a real legal path to parliamentary impeachment. That's because the National Assembly can only oust a president when enough lawmakers believe he or she has violated the law.
Two main opposition parties said Monday they'll seek parliamentary impeachment because Park has refused to step down. Presidents have immunity from criminal lawsuits while in office.
To get an impeachment through the single-chamber 300-member parliament, at least 200 — or two thirds of the total — votes are necessary. South Korean media said opposition parties, left-leaning independents and anti-Park lawmakers in her own ruling Saenuri Party can band together for more than 200 seats.
If Park is impeached, she'll be immediately stripped of her constitutional powers until the Constitutional Court can rule on her fate. Park's prime minister, the No. 2 position in the government, would take over her presidential responsibilities, including her role as commander of chief for South Korea's 630,000-member military, which faces a standoff with nuclear-armed North Korea.
If at least six of the nine-member Constitutional Court approves her impeachment, she'll be formally unseated. Then, within two months, South Korea must hold national elections to choose her successor, who will have a single five-year term.
Park, the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee who is still revered by many here for his economic achievements, may believe that daring parliament to try for impeachment is her last, best hope to finish out the five-year term that ends in early 2018.
Even if she's impeached, the conservative-leaning Constitutional Court can take up to 180 days to deliberate. That could buy her enough time to allow current public anger to subside.
Or the court could overturn the impeachment.
That's what happened in 2004 to the liberal president at the time, Roh Moo-hyun. He was impeached on allegations of incompetence and illegal electioneering. But the impeachment triggered a strong public backlash that helped his party win big in parliamentary elections; the Constitutional Court then ruled that his actions did not warrant removal from office.
Impeachment could also backfire for current liberals. Even though she's extremely unpopular, South Korean politics are still deeply divided. Many conservatives here could band together in elections next year if they see a partisan frenzy to get Park impeached in parliament.
Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at twitter.com/hyungjin1972