A South Korean parliamentary committee sent a squad of security officers on Wednesday to order the jailed woman at the center of a scandal that threatens to bring down the president to attend a hearing investigating her alleged manipulation of government affairs.
The drama is the latest step in what appears to be the final days in power for President Park Geun-hye. She faces an impeachment vote Friday.
On live TV, lawmakers in a hearing room jammed with media first assembled and then sent away about 20 security officers with orders demanding that, Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of using her ties to Park to control government affairs and extort companies, and 10 other witnesses attend the hearing.
Choi and the others could face jail or fines if they refuse. In past cases, witnesses who refused to attend hearings have been fined. Choi, now jailed at a detention center near Seoul, had earlier cited a panic disorder as the reason that she couldn't testify on Wednesday, according one of the lawmakers at the hearing.
Choi and two of Park's ex-presidential advisers have been indicted. One of the two ex-aides allegedly pressured big companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi, while the other is accused of passing confidential government documents to Choi. Both men refused to testify Wednesday.
Fourteen people caught up in the scandal are at the hearing, including two of Choi's former associates and ex-presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon.
With many key witnesses absent, lawmakers grilled Kim about a 2014 deadly ferry disaster that has long dogged Park's government over what's widely believed to have been a botched rescue effort. The sinking killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a field trip.
Opposition lawmaker Kim Kyung-jin screamed as he grilled Kim about an allegation that he told junior presidential secretaries that efforts to recover bodies from the wreckage should be stopped because it would be a burden to the government. The lawmaker cited what he called a memo left by a late Park secretary. Kim Ki-choon denied making such an instruction, causing Kim Kyung-jin to erupt.
"It will be hard for you go to heaven after you die. You need a lot of self-reflection," the lawmaker said.
If impeached, Park's presidential powers will be suspended and the country's Constitutional Court has up to 180 days to rule on whether to formally unseat her.
On Tuesday, Park told ruling party leaders that she is willing to accept the outcome if she's impeached and would make "every available effort" to prepare for a court process. The comments suggest Park is now bracing for a Constitutional Court procedure that could determine her fate, according to South Korean media reports.