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S. Korea’s ambassador to Myanmar admits Choi’s involvement in his appointment

January 31, 2017

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s Ambassador to Myanmar Yoo Jae-kyung admitted Tuesday that President Park Geun-hye’s confidante, who is at the center of an influence-peddling scandal, was involved in his appointment last year, investigators said.

An independent counsel team looking into the scandal recently began investigating suspicions that Park’s jailed friend Choi Soon-sil attempted to gain financially by exploiting Korea’s massive aid program in Myanmar. Choi allegedly recommended Yoo to the president after interviewing him in March 2016.

Yoo, 58, a former senior executive at Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co., had no experience in diplomacy when he was appointed to the post in May 2016.

Yoo returned to Seoul earlier in the day to face the investigators’ questioning.

During the interrogation, Yoo testified that he met Choi several times and became the ambassador following her recommendation, reversing his previous statement, the probe team’s spokesman Lee Kyu-chul said.

Before he entered the probe team’s office in the morning, he told reporters that he did not know who recommended him as ambassador.

“If somebody has recommended me to this post with an ulterior motive, I can tell you that the person has got the wrong person,” Yoo said.

He did not directly mention Choi and declined to comment when asked if he actually had the meeting in March.

“Upon appointment, I was told by the president that they were looking for somebody with experience in trade, instead of an authentic diplomat, so as to tap into the new market,” Yoo added.

A government source close to the matter confirmed that Yoo was recommended by the presidential office but noted that he didn’t know whether Choi Soon-sil was involved in the process.

“We didn’t know anything about Choi, not to mention her involvement,” he told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The source, however, said that Yoo passed the screening process enforced by the foreign ministry before being appointed to the post and that he has done relatively “well” as the top envoy to Myanmar since his inauguration.

It is known that there are around 15 “politically-appointed” ambassadors currently in service including Yoo. How many of them were recommended by the presidential office has not been confirmed.

He is the second incumbent ambassador stationed abroad to be called in by investigators in relation to the scandal.

Ambassador to France Mo Chul-min returned to South Korea last month, following the investigation team’s summons over suspicions the presidential office created a “blacklist” of cultural figures considered critical of the government. Mo served as a senior presidential secretary from 2013 to 2014.

Later on Tuesday, the investigation team sought an arrest warrant for Choi on charges of bribery to question her in connection with the Myanmar case. The writ is valid for 48 hours after issuance.

Choi, who has been in custody since late last year, has declined to answer to the probe team’s summons claiming the prosecutors have been “repressive.”

The investigation team interrogated her with a warrant on Wednesday, but she has exercised her right to remain silent.

South Korea's Ambassador to Myanmar Yoo Jae-kyung arrives at the special investigation team's office in southern Seoul on Jan. 31, 2017, to undergo questioning. Investigators suspect the jailed friend of President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, was behind the appointment of Yoo as the ambassador the previous year.

South Korea’s Ambassador to Myanmar Yoo Jae-kyung arrives at the special investigation team’s office in southern Seoul on Jan. 31, 2017, to undergo questioning. Investigators suspect the jailed friend of President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, was behind the appointment of Yoo as the ambassador the previous year.

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