(ATTN: UPDATES with vice minister interrogation in last 2 paras)
By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Constitutional Court held its first open hearing Tuesday to determine the fate of President Park Geun-hye following her impeachment over a corruption scandal involving her and her longtime friend.
Park, who has had her presidential powers suspended until a decision is made by the court, did not appear before the nine-member bench in a widely anticipated move.
Court President Park Han-chul closed the session nine minutes after it began, citing Park's absence.
"We will do our best to conduct a strict and fair review of the impeachment case," he said.
The first oral arguments in the impeachment case have been postponed to the second hearing to be held Thursday. Should Park fail to show up again, he added that the trial will proceed through a proxy.
Park was impeached by the National Assembly on Dec. 9 over her alleged involvement in a string of suspected crimes committed by Choi Soon-sil. Choi, a daughter of Park's late mentor Choi Tae-min, has been accused of abusing her ties to the president to gain various business and personal favors despite having no position in the government.
Park has denied all of the allegations against her, saying she only received simple advice from Choi and carried out her presidential duties faithfully.
She especially insisted on her innocence during a meeting with reporters on New Year's Day, her first public appearance since the impeachment. Critics denounced the move, saying her use of the official presidential quarters and help from her staff amounted to a breach of her suspension of duties.
"It is inappropriate and a discourtesy to the court for the president as a defendant to talk about various things outside the impeachment court," Rep. Kwon Seong-dong, who recently defected from the ruling Saenuri Party, said in a press briefing after the hearing. Kwon is a member of a parliamentary panel handling the impeachment trial.
He demanded the president explain herself in court.
Earlier, the panel submitted the entire minutes of Park's meeting with reporters to the court, citing remarks that could be interpreted as Choi's involvement in state affairs.
Park Han-chul asked the panel to clarify in writing what the evidence it has submitted so far aims to prove and how long they plan to question each suspect during upcoming hearings.
Currently, two additional hearings have been scheduled for Thursday and next Tuesday, during which some of the key suspects in the case have been asked to appear before the court. They include Choi; An Chong-bum, former senior presidential secretary for policy coordination; and Jeong Ho-seong, former secretary for private presidential affairs.
Speaking to reporters, Park's legal representative Lee Joong-hwan said she is unlikely to attend future hearings "unless there are special circumstances." Citing law, he also said an impeachment trial is meant to proceed in the absence of the defendant.
Another attorney of Park indicated that Park's refusal to attend hearings was based on a precedent set by former President Roh Moo-hyun.
During Roh's impeachment trial in 2004, he did not appear before the court, citing concerns that he could be exposed to the political offensive from the parliamentary impeachment panel.
Roh was impeached on a number of charges, including the violation of his duty to maintain political neutrality. He was later reinstated, as the court ruled that his legal offenses were not serious enough to remove him from office.
The key issues under review are whether Park violated the people's sovereignty and the rule of law, abused her power, infringed on the freedom of the press, neglected her duty to protect the right to life, and took part in bribery and other crimes.
In addition to the corruption scandal, Park has come under renewed fire for her apparent absence from duty during the first seven hours of a deadly ferry sinking in April 2014. Lee said his team is preparing "thoroughly" to respond to the accusations in time for the second hearing.
In a reflection of the high level of public interest in the trial, 54 members of the public attended Tuesday's hearing after applying online.
The entire nation has been gripped by the scandal since the first news report broke in late October, leading to weeks of candlelight protest rallies demanding Park's resignation.
Yu Hyeong-jun, 12, came to watch the hearing with his mother.
"It's too bad it ended so quickly," he said. "I want to come again on Thursday and especially on Tuesday when Choi Soon-sil comes."
The court has 180 days to decide whether to unseat or reinstate Park. In the meantime, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is serving as the country's acting president.
Meanwhile, a team of special prosecutors looking into the scandal raided detention centers in Seoul and Uiwang, south of the capital city, where Choi and other key figures implicated in the case have been put under custody.
The team said the cells of ex-vice minister Kim Chong, Choi's associate Cha Eun-taek and former presidential secretary Jeong Ho-seong were subject to search and seizure. The team said it did not visit Choi's cell.
Later Tuesday, the prosecution team interrogated Vice Culture Minister Yu Dong-hun on an alleged government blacklist of cultural figures who were critical of Park.
Yu, however, told reporters he wasn't involved in the matter after showing up for the interrogation.