Dec 6, 2016

Inside the bizarre scandal haunting South Korea's leader Park Geun-hye

Gavin Fernando @GavinDFernando
DECEMBER 5, 2016

FOR the sixth week in a row, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Seoul.

The angry citizens chanted “Step down! Step down! You must step down!” while marching towards the presidential Blue House in massive numbers.

They’re angry over a political scandal that threatens to end the rule of South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye.

Ms Park is accused of abusing her power by colluding with close friend Choi Soon-sil who is facing fraud charges.

Her actions have lead to South Korea’s opposition parties filing an impeachment motion against the president. The motion was backed by 171 members of the 300 seat legislature, will be put to a vote on Friday.

In addition to the moves inside parliament, organisers of the latest candlelight rally claim the protest attracted 1.6 million, although police put the number at 320,000.

As we speak, the 64-year-old stands on course to be the first democratically-elected South Korean president not to complete a full, five-year term.

And with rising fears about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the commitment of South Korea’s allies, the timing of all this instability couldn’t be worse.


The scandal centres on the longstanding relationship between Ms Park and her close personal friend Choi Soon-sil.

In 1974, when Ms Park was 22 years old, her mother was killed in an assassination attempt on Park’s father, the then-president of the country.

Shortly after his death, Choi’s father, a man named Choi Tae-min, reached out to Ms Park.

The elder Choi — 40 years her senior — was a religious man who had established a cult-like Christian sect called the Church of Eternal Life. He’d been married six times, had multiple pseudonyms and claimed he could heal people.

He would reportedly send the grief-stricken young woman several letters claiming he could communicate with her dead mother through his dreams, in order to gain her trust.

Ms Park instantly fell prey to the bait, and from this point on, her relationship with the Choi family was cemented.

The elder Choi quickly took advantage of his new relationship with the young Ms Park, setting up various charity organisations through the help of her influence, which were essentially slush funds, and using her to secure bribes.

When Ms Park’s father was killed five years later, in a second assassination attempt, she became more attached to the Choi family than ever.

Speculation over the extent of Ms Park’s relationship with the elder Choi goes back almost a decade.

In a 2007 diplomatic cable made public through WikiLeaks, the American Embassy in Seoul reported on rumours concerning the pair.

According to the WikiLeaks report, there were rumours Choi “had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result”.

The New York Times reports it was even rumoured that Park, who has never married, had Choi’s child. She has denied this.

When Choi Tae-min died, his daughter Soon-sil took over his role as Park’s spiritual guide and caretaker. This 40-year relationship only strengthened as Park entered the Blue House in 2013.

She allegedly gave Choi a powerful behind-the-scenes role in presidential affairs, despite the fact that Choi had no political background or ranking.

Based on her control, Choi became known as the “Rasputin” of South Korea — the leader’s trusted friend whose powerful influence saw her effectively control the country’s political goings-on.

Choi allegedly communicated regularly with the president’s staff, had a big say in her political appointments, and received presidential briefings.

She was even said to have power over the president’s wardrobe, dictating what colours she should wear on certain days.

In October this year, when the scandal was confirmed, Ms Park herself admitted she allowed Choi to edit some of her most important political speeches.


When Korean media first reported on allegations that Choi had edited Ms Park’s speeches, the Blue House dismissed them as nonsense.

But on October 27, the Korean cable TV network JTBC got the scoop of the century, and it was all thanks to one discarded tablet computer.

On the device were dozens of drafts of Ms Park’s presidential speeches with edits marked in red by Choi, chat messages between Choi and presidential aides, and even the president’s vacation schedule.

When Choi returned to Seoul two days later, she was detained by police. On November 20, she was formally indicted on a number of charges, including extortion and abuse of power.

There have been street protests in Korea ever since the scandal broke.

According to the latest Gallup poll, Ms Park’s approval rating sits at a shocking record low of four per cent.

The pair are publicly lampooned, with parodies, memes and even Halloween costumes marking the bizarre event.


The President has issued a number of emotive apologies since the scandal broke.

She denied allegations of involvement in a cult, and insisted she never performed shamanistic rituals in the Blue House.

Last month, Ms Park gave a televised address in which she said she was living a “lonely life” as president, and had turned to Choi for companionship and guidance.

“I feel a huge responsibility,” she said. “It is all my fault and mistake.

“Choi was the person who helped me personally taking care of my personal affairs when I faced the hardest and loneliest moments in my life, eventually causing me to overlook the shortcomings of people around me.”

Choi has also begged the country for forgiveness. Addressing a massive crowd of media, protesters and security last month, she said: “Please, forgive me. I’m sorry. I committed a sin that deserves death.”

Last week, Ms Park said for the first time she was willing to leave office without completing her full term if politicians could agree on a suitable transition.

But on Saturday, South Korea’s three opposition parties introduced a joint impeachment motion against her, dismissing her proposal to resign early.

The motion accused her of abusing her power and violating the constitution by allowing a personal friend to exert influence in the government’s decision making.

“We hereby propose impeachment proceedings to protect the constitution and restore the impaired constitutional order by removing President Park Geun-hye from office,” the motion said.

The motion will be put to a vote on Friday, but it remains unclear whether or not it will get enough votes to impeach the leader.

A two-thirds majority of 200 votes is required to pass the impeachment motion, which would require members of Ms Park’s own party voting her out.


The last thing South Korea needs right now is uncertainty in its leadership.

For one thing, North Korea has reportedly carried out two weapons tests, in addition to dozens of missile tests and launches.

Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on the reclusive country to cut off money and counter its provocative actions.

It follows a sweeping new round of United Nations sanctions aimed at stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, which Pyongyang has vowed to meet with tough countermeasures.

North Korean propaganda has been systematically brutal towards Ms Park, previously describing her as a “dirty prostitute who licks her master’s groin”, an “ageing witch”, a “female dog” and an “American parrot”.

Pyongyang has also repeatedly called for her death.

With the recent election of Donald Trump, the United States’ commitment to defending South Korea in the wake of such an attack is no longer guaranteed.

Throughout his political campaign, the President-elect stated he may consider no longer defending longstanding allies South Korea and Japan, unless they pay a significant sum to the US to do so.

To be fair, Mr Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the South Korean president in a subsequent phone call, saying: “We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea.”

But his unpredictable behaviour will no doubt keep South Korea on edge in the midst of a potential attack.

We won’t know what’s going to happen to the country until Friday.

But whatever the result, it’s unlikely Ms Park will remain in the top job for long.

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