Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of a massive scandal that has brought down President Park Geun-hye, on Monday entered a plea of not guilty to all charges of corruption and abuse of power.
The trial started at 2:10 p.m. with 80 seats in the courtroom open to the public and the rest crammed with the press and other involved parties.
Choi appeared in prison uniform and bowed her head. The judge gave journalists unprecedented access by allowing them about two minutes to film the scene before the trial began. Choi then gave her date of birth and her profession as "leasing service."
Prosecutors said the case involves "a private citizen (Choi), who maintained a longtime friendship with the president, and public servants who served the president at her side (former secretaries An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong), abusing their authority and granting favors to select businesses."
Prosecutors added that they investigated 226 people including the heads of major conglomerates, and conducted 52 surprise raids to obtain evidence.
Choi's lawyer Lee Kyung-jae entered not-guilty pleas on all counts. "The court must determine what is truth and what is mere suspicion," he said. "The prosecution has claimed that Choi colluded with the president on eight counts of breaches of the law. But Choi has never colluded with the president. It cannot constitute a crime as there was no collusion."
Most of the hour-long session was taken up by procedural matters and admissibility of evidence. Prosecutors entered 827 pieces of evidence to prove Choi and An's guilt and 429 pieces of evidence implicating Jeong.
Lee argued that Choi's rights were violated as she was grilled by prosecutors "late into the night," but prosecutors countered that she consulted with her lawyer 69 times during questioning.
A crucial piece of evidence is a tablet PC whose discovery by a JTBC reporter triggered the unravelling of the scandal because it contained confidential government information and two selfies of Choi from happier days.
Lee argued the tablet is inadmissible since Choi denies it belongs to her and asked the court to have the National Forensic Service examine. He also asked for the NFS to verify the authenticity of phone conversations found on Jeong's mobile phones and notes in An's diary, which were seized in raids on their homes.
It is unclear why Choi decided to turn up for what could have been a mere formality. When the judge gave her a chance to comment, she said, "When I just came back from Germany, I said I would take my punishment. But now I need to clarify myself."
"I apologize for causing public controversy," she added. "I will engage faithfully in the trial."
When she returned to Korea from Germany in late October, a disoriented Choi gabbled in front of reporters that she "deserves death" for her crimes, but she has since had time in jail to compose herself.
An and Jeong did not show up. An's attorney pleaded not guilty on his client's behalf, saying An merely "conveyed" the president's demands to big businesses but denied an active role in pressuring them to make massive donations to the dubious Mir and K-Sports foundations controlled by Choi. He confirmed that Park gave An a list of people she wanted the foundations staffed with, many of them drinking buddies of Choi's.
But the lawyer for Jeong, who is charged with leaking confidential state documents, said his client "admits the charges." But he added that Jeong "upheld the president's orders."
The statements signal that much of the trial will turn on the conflicting stories of the accused.
Choi Soon-sil in prison uniform (center) enters a courtroom at the Seoul Central District Court on Monday.
Choi Soon-sil and lawyers wait for her trial to begin at the Seoul Central District Court on Monday.