SEOUL — South Korean President Park Geun-hye is fighting for her political life amid a burgeoning scandal over allegations that her close friend was acting as a kind of “shadow president” and making money from it.
This debacle is “breathtaking” even by the standards of South Korea, where political scandals are a dime a dozen, said Se-woong Koo, editor of the Korea Exposé Web magazine.
“The revelations, about just how much influence this one woman with no official government position might have wielded over the government, point to a discomfiting possibility,” he wrote in a post. “Power in this country doesn’t completely belong to a legitimately elected leader. Instead, the president is in thrall to a shadowy figure who pursues her private agenda.”
This crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. Here’s what you need to know about it. Stick with me here — this is a long and winding tale.
How did this all start?
It began several weeks ago when local media outlets started reporting that Choi had been advising the president in surprising ways. A television station said it had found a tablet computer that contained files of speeches the president had yet to give, among other documents. Since then more allegations have come out, suggesting Choi’s influence extended from budget decisions to Park’s wardrobe.
But it all blew up last Sunday when Choi, who had been in Germany (where she owns a horse farm) for several months, returned to South Korea and showed up the following day for questioning at the prosecutor’s office. The media scrum that greeted her made Justin Bieber fans look restrained.
Choi has been detained, and the courts issued a warrant for her arrest Thursday night.
Who is this Choi Soon-sil?
Choi and Park have been friends for four decades. To explain their connection, we need to go back a long way. Bear with this.
Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was an army general who seized control of South Korea in a military coup in 1961. He ruled for almost two decades, a period associated both with astonishingly fast economic development but also iron-fisted repression of dissent.
In 1974, Park and his wife, Yook Young-soo, were at the national theater in Seoul when a North Korean sympathizer tried to assassinate the president. The bullet instead hit Yook, killing her.
It was after this event that Choi Tae-min, the leader of a religious cult that borrowed from Christianity and Buddhism, sent a letter to the young Park Geun-hye, then 22 years old and suddenly first lady. Choi told Park that he could channel her dead mother, and he started “passing messages” to Park.
Some kind of mentorship began. The fact that Choi, 40 years her senior, was becoming close to Park Geun-hye raised eyebrows at the time.
Then, in 1979, Park's father was assassinated by his own intelligence chief. Recent news reports have suggested that the spy chief was motivated partly out of frustration over Choi’s closeness to the young Park and the president’s inability to do anything about it.
Got it so far?
Okay, still with you. What happened next?
These years were clearly tough ones for Park.
“I was shocked, of course. It was very painful for me, but at the same time the order was too tall for me not to accept it,” Park told me when, interviewing her in 2007, I asked how she coped with the loss of her mother and being thrust into such a public role at the same time.
After her father died, Park disappeared into the wilderness for almost two decades. To this day, it is not entirely clear what she did during that period. But in recent weeks, local media have reported that Park became the leader of a group established by Choi Tae-min and that, even at that time, there were whispers that the Choi family was profiting off its relationship with Park.
In 1994, Choi Tae-min died. Four years later, Park returned to the political scene, entering the national assembly. Less than a decade later, she was making her first bid for the presidency, running against former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak for the conservative party’s nomination. (Lee won both the nomination and the presidency.)
It was at this time that the U.S. Embassy in Seoul sent a cable back to Washington, noting the opposition’s allegations of an improper relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min. The cable, released by WikiLeaks, described Choi Tae-min as “a charismatic pastor” and noted that he was characterized locally as a “Korean Rasputin” who controlled Park after her mother was assassinated.
“Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result,” read the cable. Park, who has never married, has strongly denied any improper relationship.
Well, that’s rather sensational, but how does that get us to a political scandal in 2016?
After her mother was assassinated, Park became close not only to Choi Tae-min but also to one of his daughters, Choi Soon-sil, who is four years younger than Park. South Korean media are reporting that Choi Soon-sil “inherited” her father’s ability to communicate with Park’s mother, and that she took on the role of delivering messages from beyond the grave after the elder Choi died. (Of course, this is all speculation, and nothing has been confirmed.)
Park last week said that Choi Soon-sil had helped her through “difficult times.” But South Korean media have uncovered evidence that, they say, shows Choi was doing much more than that.
So, what are the allegations here?
First of all, there’s the suspicion that Choi, who held no official position and has no security clearance, was involved in everything from editing speeches to doling out the culture ministry’s $150 million budget.
The JTBC cable television channel said it had found a tablet computer that contained files of speeches the president had yet to give, memos for cabinet meetings, messages traded with presidential aides and schedules. Choi denied the tablet was hers — but hasn’t explained how it came to hold a selfie of her.
Park also apparently gave Choi a generous budget to buy clothes for her, but Choi is accused of ordering cheap outfits and pocketing the difference. A clip emerged showing Choi’s staff smoking and eating fried chicken as a tailor was making a suit for Park, even touching the fabric with their greasy hands. Park wore the suit during a presidential visit with China’s Xi Jinping.
Second, there’s the allegation that Choi used her position to enrich herself and benefit her family.
She set up two foundations with about $70 million donated from the big business lobby in South Korea, which counts Samsung and Hyundai among its members. Choi is now accused of having siphoned off a lot of that money for her own personal use, and some of Park’s since-fired aides are under investigation for pressuring the companies to donate.
And there’s the case of Choi’s 19-year-old daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. An equestrian with hopes of participating in the 2020 Olympics dressage competition, Chung’s grades apparently weren’t good enough to get her admitted to Ewha Womans University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious. So the university allegedly changed its admissions criteria to give credit to applicants with honors in equestrian sports. Yep, you couldn’t make this up. The president of Ewha has resigned over the allegations.
What’s the reaction been?
It has been loud and it has been long. Last weekend, thousands of people took to the streets of central Seoul to protest against Park, many of them calling for her resignation. Park’s approval rating has fallen to just 9 percent, according to one poll. Another found that 70 percent of respondents wanted to her resign or be impeached.
Members of the main opposition party and students are calling on her to resign. Even her own ministers are saying it’s possible that Park will be investigated for wrongdoing.
If you can handle one more twist, here’s an added tale: Choi Soon-sil’s ex-husband is Chung Yoon-hoi, who served as chief of staff to Park while she was a lawmaker.
When the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, claiming more than 300 lives, many of them high school students, Park reportedly couldn’t be contacted for seven hours. The Chosun Ilbo reported that she was with Chung during that time. When the Sankei Shimbun, the conservative Japanese newspaper, repeated the allegations, the reporter found himself sued for defamation and banned from leaving the country for 14 months.
Wow. But South Koreans are not exactly unfamiliar with allegations of corruption at the highest levels. Why are they so exercised about this case?
Well, apart from all the lurid suggestions of shamans and sex, this whole brouhaha taps into a widespread feeling that the president is too removed from the people. She is considered aloof; former aides to this president and her predecessor say she doesn’t take advice even from her own staff. Now comes the allegation that she was secretly getting advice from someone with no government experience and questionable links to a cult. Plus, someone who apparently thought so little of the friendship that she was prepared to let the president wear cheap clothes pawed by greasy fingers to important international events.
The idea that Choi's daughter received preferential treatment to be admitted to college has struck a particularly raw nerve at a time when many young Koreans are complaining about the difficulties in working their way up the ladder. Here's a story I wrote about the whole issue: “Young South Koreans call their country ‘hell’ and look for ways out.”
Every president since South Korea became democratic in 1987 has been tarnished with corruption allegations in some way, sometimes involving family members. So why has this corruption scandal caused such a firestorm?
“It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt,” a Virginia-based blogger known simply as “the Korean” wrote on his site, Ask a Korean. “Why did Park Geun-hye, the president, even bother with Choi Soon-sil, a nobody?”
Aside from the deception, South Koreans find the fact that Park does not appear to have been acting for her own benefit most perplexing of all.
“Even though we would prefer that our politicians are not corrupt, at least we know how corrupt politicians behave. But not with Park Geun-hye. Her corruption was not self-interested at all. If anything, her corruption was self-sacrificing in favor of Choi Soon-sil,” the Ask a Korean blogger wrote.
“Koreans may expect that the president would be corrupt, but they never could have expected that the president might be feeble in her mind,” he said
Is Park going to fall over this?
Probably not. The opposition, which was already in disarray, has no incentive to take over the government for the year until the next presidential election.
In reality, Park will probably lead the lamest of lame duck administrations until election in December 2017. She has already nominated a new prime minister, a former adviser to liberal president Roh Moo-hyun, and appointed a new chief of staff, a man who did the same job for Kim Dae-jung, the left-wing president of the late 1990s. Both moves are seen as an attempt to form a kind of unity government and placate the opposition.
But buckle up, because the ride isn’t over yet.