TOKYO — The woman accused of acting as South Korea’s “shadow president” has been jailed under emergency detention laws, as prosecutors question her about what role she played for the real president, Park Geun-hye.
Park is facing the worst crisis of her tumultuous four-year presidency after allegations that Choi Soon-sil, her close friend of four decades, has had undue influence on state affairs.
The case has incensed the country so much that a 45-year-old man on Tuesday drove an excavator from a town about 150 miles south of Seoul, the capital, and into the prosecutors’ office where Choi is being held, destroying the door. He later told police he wanted to “help Choi Soon-sil die as she said she committed a sin that deserves death,” the Yonhap news agency reported.
The Seoul central district prosecutors’ office has 48 hours to seek a warrant to formally arrest Choi, who is 60.
“Choi has denied all of the charges against her, and we’re concerned that she may destroy evidence,” a prosecution official said, according to Yonhap, explaining why she was detained.
Prosecutors also consider her a flight risk.
“She has fled overseas in the past, and she doesn’t have a permanent address in South Korea,” the official told reporters. “She is also in an extremely unstable psychological state, and it’s possible an unexpected event could occur if she is released.”
Even in a country all too familiar with corruption scandals and noted for its explosive political crises, the current debacle is exceptional.
Choi is the daughter of the late Choi Tae-min, a kind of shaman-fortune teller who was close to Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who ruled South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s.
When Park’s mother was assassinated in 1974, Choi Tae-min became so close to the young Park that a U.S. Embassy cable once described him as a “Korean Rasputin.”
The Munhwa Ilbo newspaper reported last week that Choi Tae-min, who founded a religious cult that incorporated elements of Christianity and Buddhism, would “deliver messages” to Park from her dead mother.
Park Chung-hee was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 1979, and Choi Tae-min died in 1994, but their daughters’ friendship endured. In her only public statement on the scandal, Park last week said that Choi Soon-sil had helped her through “difficult times.”
But media outlets have uncovered what they say is evidence that Choi, who held no official role, had been involved in everything from editing speeches to choosing the president’s outfits, leading to charges that she has been acting as a “shadow president.”
Furthermore, Choi is suspected of using her ties to Park to raise $70 million from big Korean companies for two foundations and then siphoning off the money. She is also thought to have used her influence to get her daughter into a prestigious college.
Thousands of people protested in the streets over the weekend to call for Park’s resignation, and her approval rating has plummeted to the low teens, according to recent polls.
Trying to quell public fury, Park fired several of her closest advisers, including three who have been with her since she entered politics in 1998. Prosecutors are investigating whether some of the aides put pressure on big businesses to donate to Choi’s foundations.
But the outrage has only grown with Choi’s return to South Korea from Germany on Sunday and the 31 hours that passed before her appearance at the prosecutor’s office in Seoul on Monday.
With a dark hat pulled over her face and a scarf over her chin, Choi fought through a media scrum to get into the prosecutors’ office Monday afternoon. “I am so sorry,” she said as she forged through the reporters, losing a shoe. “I have committed a deadly sin. Please forgive me.”
The shoe was Prada, further outraging South Koreans convinced that Choi used her ties to the Park family to generate money and power for herself.