South Korean protesters hold up signs reading ‘Step down Park Geun-hye!’ during a rally in central Seoul on Saturday. ENLARGE
South Korean protesters hold up signs reading ‘Step down Park Geun-hye!’ during a rally in central Seoul on Saturday. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Associated Press

Oct. 29, 2016 8:07 a.m. ET

SEOUL—Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of the capital on Saturday calling for increasingly unpopular President Park Geun-hye to step down over allegations that she let an old friend interfere in important state affairs.

The protest came after Ms. Park ordered 10 of her senior secretaries to resign over a scandal that is likely to deepen the president’s lame-duck status ahead of next year’s election.

Holding candles and signs reading “Who’s the real president?” and “Park Geun-hye step down,” the protesters marched through downtown Seoul after holding a candlelight vigil near City Hall. Police estimated that about 9,000 people turned out for the biggest antigovernment demonstration in Seoul in months.

“Park has lost her authority as president and showed she doesn’t have the basic qualities to govern a country,” Jae-myung Lee, from the opposition Minjoo Party and the mayor of the city of Seongnam, told the protesters from a stage.

Ms. Park has been facing calls to reshuffle her office and cabinet after she acknowledged on Tuesday that she provided longtime friend Choi Soon-sil drafts of her speeches for editing. Her televised apology sparked intense criticism about her mismanagement of national information and a heavy-handed leadership style that many see as lacking in transparency.

Prosecutors on Saturday widened their investigation by searching the homes of presidential officials suspected of interacting with Ms. Choi and receiving their office files from the Blue House—the presidential office and residence. Prosecutors had previously summoned some of Ms. Choi’s key associates and raided their homes and workplaces, as well as the offices of two nonprofit foundations Ms. Choi supposedly controlled.

The saga, triggered by weeks of media reports, has sent Ms. Park’s approval ratings to record lows, and the minority opposition Justice Party has called for her to resign. The Minjoo Party, a larger opposition party that has refrained from calling for Ms. Park’s resignation over fears of negatively affecting next year’s presidential election, said Ms. Park’s decision to shake up her secretariat was too little, too late, and called for stronger changes, including the reshuffling of her cabinet.

Ms. Park’s aides on the way out include Woo Byung-woo, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, and Ahn Jong-beom, senior secretary for policy coordination. Lee Won-jong, Ms. Park’s chief of staff, tendered his resignation on Wednesday. Ms. Park’s office said she plans to announce a new lineup of senior secretaries soon.

Ms. Choi’s lawyer Lee Gyeong-jae said that she was currently in Germany but would return to South Korea if prosecutors summon her. In an interview with a South Korean newspaper earlier in the week, Ms. Choi acknowledged receiving presidential documents in advance, but denied intervening in state affairs or pressuring companies into donating to the foundations.

Ms. Choi and Ms. Park reportedly became friends in the 1970s, when Ms. Choi’s late father, Choi Tae-min, a shadowy religious figure who was a Buddhist monk, cult leader and Christian pastor at different points of his life, emerged as Ms. Park’s mentor.

At the time, Ms. Park was serving as acting first lady after her mother was killed in 1974 by a man trying to assassinate her father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, who would be murdered by his own spy chief five years later.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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