The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The South Korean political scandal started with a card game in Macau

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a news conference in Seoul with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. (Jung Yeon-Je-pool/Getty Images)
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SEOUL - The South Korean political system has been shaken to its core over the revelations that President Park Geun-hye has been taking secret advice from Choi Soon-sil, a friend of 40 years who held no official position and had no policy background.

The saga began with a simple and apparently self-contained incident: The chief executive of Nature Republic, a South Korean cosmetics company, was arrested for gambling in Macau in November 2015.

Gambling is illegal for South Koreans and is punishable with prison time, even if the South Korean citizen is caught gambling abroad.

Chung Woon-ho, the executive, was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison.

During the appeal process, Chung had a legal dispute with his attorney. In the process of probing this dispute, a typically South Korean act of corruption was uncovered involving a prosecutor, a businessman and a government official.

But this time it was really serious, involving the former chief of the prosecutors’ office, a high-ranking judge, the conglomerate Lotte and a senior secretary to the president. The investigation uncovered the existence of Lotte slush funds and ended with the suicide of Lotte's vice chairman, who left a note taking full responsibility. The former chief of the prosecutors’ office and the judge were arrested.

However, the senior secretary to the president and a former senior prosecutor, Woo Byung-woo, walked away unscathed.

Eight months later, South Korea's biggest newspaper, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, broke news of another scandal involving a business, a prosecutor and a government official. A familiar name surfaced again: Woo Byung-woo.

The Chosun Ilbo reported that an Internet game company, Nexon, did a favor for Woo by buying his family's land for $120 million, at a time that they were having a trouble selling it. The allegation was that the land had been bought in return for Woo turning a blind eye on a prosecutor's unlawful gains from Nexon shares. Woo had been in charge of vetting this prosecutor for promotion in 2015.

The nation was incensed by this allegation of systemic corruption in the justice system. The fact that Woo was not investigated only increased suspicion that it was he who held the real power inside the presidential office, enough to influence the national justice system. Local media began calling him an “emperor.”

Then, a further Chosun Ilbo investigation led to yet another government official being exposed for abusing his power. This time it was another senior secretary to the president, An Chong-bum.

An had allegedly been strong-arming conglomerates to donate money to the newly established MI-R Foundation. An had reportedly used the threat of painful audits to extort money from as many as 30 conglomerates. Local media reported that it was suspected that An had been raising money that was to be for Park's personal use after she retires in 2018. The former head of the MI-R Foundation later said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo that he was told, “Woo at the presidential office and the prosecutors’ office had their back.”

Just as the Chosun Ilbo's focus was moving ever closer to the president herself, one of the lawmakers in Park's ruling managed to deflect attention away from this embarrassing probe and back on to the newspaper by highlighting the fact that the Chosun Ilbo’s chief writer had received expensive trips from Daewoo, a shipping company, in 2011. The incident significantly damaged the paper's reputation and it suspended its reporting on the relationship between the foundation and the presidential office.

Then another local newspaper, the left-leaning Hankyoreh, brought the story back to life with a surprising twist.

It published a story that named Choi Soon-sil as the de-facto owner of the MI-R Foundation. Choi had been friends with Park since the 1970s and was the daughter of Choi Tae-min, a cult founder who was believed to have had huge influence over Park until his death in 1994. Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min’s strange relationship was an open secret in South Korea but had never been investigated.

As the investigation rolled on, suspicion grew concerning Choi Soon-sil’s undue influence: 14 shell companies were linked to her in Germany, then a friend claimed that Choi’s favorite hobby was “changing Park Geun-hye’s speeches.”

Park initially dismissed the allegations as mere rumors, but when a cable channel reported on Oct. 24 that the president’s speeches had been found on Choi Soon-sil’s tablet computer, such denials were no longer plausible.

The president has since made two public apologies but these have not been enough to assuage the public's growing anger, and tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets over the past two weeks calling for her resignation. Park’s approval rating has plummeted to 5 percent, according to Gallup Korea, the lowest for a president in the poll's history.

The investigation is only just beginning but already Park’s senior secretary, An Chong-bum, and Choi Soon-sil have been arrested for abuse of power and attempted fraud, and corporate officials from conglomerates including Samsung are being questioned by prosecutors.

“Emperor” Woo Byung-woo, was also summoned for questioning Sunday. As the senior secretary to the president for civil affairs, Woo’s role is to monitor corruption of the people close to the president. How he will come out of this scandal remains to be seen.

No one knows where the chips may fall in this ongoing saga, but this much is clear: What began with one businessman playing cards at a table in Macau has now grown into South Korea’s largest political scandal since its democratization in 1987.