South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced on Tuesday that she would be willing to resign if the country's legislature set a path for an orderly transfer of power.
Park, bowing to weeks of extraordinary public pressure over a corruption scandal, apologized to the country. Recent weeks have seen massive rallies for her removal; on Saturday, up to 1.9 million people took to the streets nationwide.
“I have been contemplating many days and many nights … and here I would like to take this moment to share with you my determinations, including the shortening of my term as president,” Park said in the five-minute statement, according to a simultaneous English translation on state-run Arirang television.
Park insisted that she has only acted in the public’s interest. She then deferred a decision about her fate to the country’s unicameral legislature, which appeared poised to impeach her amid allegations that a confidant gained access to sensitive documents and extorted money from powerful business conglomerates.
She pledged to honor any legal process the lawmakers could agree upon – potentially a plan to expedite South Korea's next presidential elections, currently scheduled for December 2017.
“I would abide by the legal processes and afterward I would resign,” Park said.
Park’s statement leaves considerable uncertainty about her future, and could slow or even prevent her impeachment, just as a growing number of members of her conservative political party, known as Saenuri, had been calling for her resignation.
Park’s statement could probably decrease the odds of an impeachment, said John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Now she’s saying I’ll go if you just tell me to go,” he said. “I’ll work with you to make a smooth transition to power.
“I heard at least three of the five stages of grief,” he said of the speech. “There was denial, bargaining and acceptance.”
The fallout from a potential resignation or impeachment has roiled the country's political scene. Under Korean law, if a president abruptly relinquishes power, potential candidates have only 60 days to mount campaigns. The winner receives a five-year term.
After Park's statement, the floor leader of her party, Chung Jin-suk, called on her critics in the legislature to reconsider their schedule for impeachment. A key opposition leader, Choo Mi-ae, called Park’s deferral to the legislature a “trick.”
"She must resign unconditionally,” she said. “We will continue pursuing impeachment."
Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based researcher at Georgetown University’s Institute of the Study of Diplomacy, said some would view Park’s announcement as a stalling tactic, because it might take battling factions in the legislature considerable time to decide on a resolution.
“Some people may be relieved to hear that President Park has said she is willing to step down, but she has built in some conditions," she said.
The president’s announcement comes after weeks of controversy over the scandal, which has ensnared many high-profile figures inside and outside public life.
Under Korean law, Park has immunity as president from criminal prosecution. In the ongoing criminal case, she has been labeled a “suspect.”
The legislature has been in the process of appointing an independent counsel to investigate the case. It's currently overseen by prosecutors.
Prosecutors have said she could be criminally complicit in a case against her confidant, Choi Soon-sil, who has been jailed on charges that she used her influence with the president to access classified documents. They also allege she coerced big businesses, such as Samsung and Hyundai, into donating millions of dollars to foundations she controlled.
Park, who bowed deeply after the statement, seemed resigned to a South Korean future that would not include her as leader.
“As soon as possible I hope that Korea returns to its original trajectory, being freed from these political turmoils,” she said. “I hope that the political circles can gather the wisdom for the bright future of our nation.”
Stiles is a special correspondent
11:30 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 10:10 p.m.