South Korea's Political Split

James Ryu, March 1, 2017, 9:25 a.m.

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES with reports of rallies, additional information throughout)

SEOUL, March 1 (Yonhap) -- Tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets again Wednesday, demanding impeached President Park Geun-hye to step down, while an equally great number of people gathered for a separate rally calling for a reinstatement of the president.

Supporters of Park began early, filling up the wide street stretching from City Hall down to southern Sungnyemun from 2 p.m.

The rally marked the 15th of its kind since the unicameral National Assembly impeached the president on Dec. 9 over her alleged involvement in a corruption scandal also involving her friend Choi Soon-sil.

Choi is currently in custody on suspicions of extorting some 80 billion won (US$70.8 million) from some 50 local conglomerates, as well as peddling influence in state affairs.

Park's supporters, accusing Choi of all wrongdoing, insist Park was a victim too, only cheated by her trusted friend.

"They have falsely accused President Park of wrongdoing by using guilt by association to blame her for Choi Soon-sil and her group's wrongdoing," Kim Pyung-woo, a member of Park's defense team, said while attending the rally in downtown Seoul.

The latest street rally came two days after the Constitutional Court held the final hearing in the impeachment case. The court is widely expected to deliver its decision later this month.

Wednesday's rally also came one day after a special prosecution concluded its 70-day investigation into the corruption scandal after naming the president herself a suspect in it.

Those against the president also continued to hold their own separate rally in downtown Seoul, taking up the northern end of the street in front of Seoul City Hall that stretches from Sungnyemun to Gyeongbok Palace.

It marked the 18th rally held by Park's opponents, but the first to be held on a Wednesday, as what have come to be known as the candlelight vigils have been held on Saturdays.

No reports of violence have been filed so far, but the only thing between the two separate and opposite rallies in the same large area of Gwanghwamun is a few meters of space created by police blockades.

However, tensions between the two groups are expected to grow, as those supporting the president were scheduled to hold their first-ever march towards the presidential office.

Those opposing the president have been holding such marches each week.

The police have said the two separate groups were set to use different routes to different destinations, noting they were not likely to meet on the way.

At least 16,000 police officers, including riot police, have been mobilized and stationed in downtown Seoul, they said.

Earlier, the police found a man bleeding at the Park support rally.

The 51-year-old, identified only by his surname Lee, is said to have cut off his own left pinky at home to write words of support for the president in his blood.

He has been taken to a hospital for treatment, the police said.

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