TOKYO — South Korea’s president is engulfed in a political scandal with plotlines straight out of a soap opera: rumors of secret advisers, nepotism and ill-gotten gains, plus a whiff of sex. There’s even a Korean Rasputin and talk of a mysterious clique called the “eight fairies.”
Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president and daughter of the military dictator who turned the country into an industrial powerhouse, is facing the biggest challenge of her turbulent tenure.
The essence of the scandal is this: It has emerged that Park, notoriously aloof even to her top aides, has been taking private counsel from Choi Soon-sil, a woman she’s known for four decades. Despite having no official position and no security clearance, Choi seems to have advised Park on everything from her wardrobe to speeches about the dream of reunification with North Korea.
Calls for her resignation — and even impeachment — are resonating from across the political spectrum, and her approval ratings have dropped to a record low of 17 percent, according to two polls released Friday.
On Friday, Park directed all of her top advisers to resign en masse, with her spokesman saying a reshuffle would take place, the Yonhap news agency reported. Kim Jae-won, senior presidential secretary for political affairs, told a parliamentary session that Park’s chief of staff had already stepped down.
It’s not clear, however, whether it will be enough.
“Park Geun-hye’s leadership is on the brink of collapse,” said Yoo Chang-sun, a left-leaning political analyst. Shin Yool, a right-leaning professor at Myongji University, called it the “biggest crisis” since South Korea was founded 70 years ago. “The president has lost her ability to function as leader.”
Choi is the daughter of the late Choi Tae-min, who was a kind of shaman-fortune teller described in a 2007 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul as “a charismatic pastor.” Locally, he’s seen as a “Korean Rasputin” who once held sway over Park after her mother was assassinated in 1974.
“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, released by WikiLeaks.
Park has strongly denied any improper relationship.
But South Korean media have uncovered evidence that, they claim, shows that Choi Soon-sil wielded undue influence over the president.
JTBC, a television network, said it had found a tablet computer that contained files of speeches the president had yet to give, among other documents. The younger Choi is said to have edited the landmark speech that Park gave in Germany in 2014, laying out her vision for unification with the North. The Hankyoreh newspaper wrote that actual presidential aides “were just mice to Choi’s cat.”
She is also rumored to have created a secret group called “the eight fairies” to advise the president behind the scenes.
TV Chosun, the channel belonging to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, aired a clip showing Choi overseeing the making of an outfit for Park, “raising doubt whether Park made any decision at all without Choi,” the paper said.
South Korean media have been full of Photoshopped graphics to illustrate the relationship, including one showing Park as a puppet and Choi Soon-sil pulling her strings.
Meanwhile, investigators are looking into allegations that Choi siphoned off money from two recently established foundations that collected about $70 million from the Federation of Korean Industries, the big business lobby with members including Samsung and Hyundai. Prosecutors raided Choi’s home in Seoul this week looking for evidence.
At the same time, there are allegations that the daughter of Choi Soon-sil was given special treatment when she applied for Ewha Womans University, one of South Korea’s top colleges.
Local media have reported that her daughter’s grades were not good enough, so the rules were changed to give credit to applicants who had won equestrian awards, as she had. The already-embattled president of Ewha resigned this week.
Ironically, this all comes less than a month after Park’s administration instituted a wide-ranging new law aimed at cracking down on corruption and influence peddling.
Choi is in Germany with her daughter and is refusing to return to South Korea to answer questions, saying she is having heart problems and cannot fly. But in an interview with the Segye Ilbo, she denied creating the Eight Fairies group, owning the tablet or knowingly receiving classified information. “Because I was not a government official, I had no idea that this was confidential,” she told the paper.
Park apologized Tuesday for the scandal, saying she had always acted “with a pure heart.” Then she canceled a planned meeting related to North Korea on Friday so she could consider ways to “resolve the nation’s anxiety and stably run the government,” according to a spokesman.
She did, however, attend a ceremony in the southern city of Busan, where university students shouted “Park Geun-hye should step down!” and “Choi Soon-sil must be arrested!”
South Korea is no stranger to political corruption scandals — almost every president has been tainted by one — but this time feels different to some analysts.
“There’s been corruption around the center of power throughout South Korean political history, but they have involved family members or people close to the president, but not the actual president,” said Shin of Myongji University.
“I can only think of two ways for Park Geun-hye to get out of this situation: She can propose a grand-coalition government or promise to step down after a constitutional amendment [allowing her to cede power] is passed,” he said.
Park’s five-year term runs until the end of next year.
The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper and an influential conservative voice, was similarly damning.
“This is no ordinary lame-duck phenomenon. This is a complete collapse of a president's ability to run a government,” it said in an editorial this week, calling on her to dissolve her government secretariat and appoint a caretaker prime minister.
“The only way open to her is to pull out of government and put the public good first,” it wrote. “Many people are ashamed for her. It is time she was, too.”
Seo reported from Seoul.