The bizarre political scandal bringing down Korea’s president

02-Dec-2016 Intellasia | Vox | 7:10 AM Print This Post

While Americans watch the Twitter-fueled drama surrounding President-elect Donald Trump’s efforts to build his new Cabinet, South Koreans thousands of miles away are transfixed by the bizarre political spectacle playing out on their TV screens – and about to bring down their president.

The country’s leader, Park Geun-hye, has been mired in a scandal so strange it sounds like something out of a comic book. Whereas most politicians fall from grace due to banal things like corruption or marital infidelity, the fall of South Korea’s first female president has resulted from her relationship with a shadowy figure from an obscure religious cult that critics have derided as a “shaman fortuneteller” with sinister, Rasputin-like influence over Park.

The adviser, a 60-year-old woman named Choi Soon-sil, is the daughter of the founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life and a longtime friend of Park. Choi has been indicted on charges of having manipulated the president for personal financial gain, including using her relationship with Park to coerce large companies into donating almost $70 million to two non-profit foundations Choi runs. Prosecutors have alleged that Choi then siphoned some of that money for personal use.

But the Choi case isn’t just an example of an unusual political scandal unfolding in a country that doesn’t often attract much attention here in the US. It’s also a potentially serious blow to a vital American ally already grappling with massive uncertainty over its future relationship with Trump, who has talked about abandoning Washington’s longstanding promise to defend South Korea. Seoul is also worried about the behavior of recent missile tests by North Korea, its increasingly bellicose, nuclear-armed neighbour.

Masses of protesters gather and occupy major streets in the city center for a rally against South Korean President Park Geun-hye on November 26, 2016, in Seoul, South Korea.(Getty Images)

The scandal, in other words, is literally the last thing South Korea needs right now.

Meet the mystery woman upending South Korean politics

The revelations about the astonishing degree of power Park apparently gave to Choi, a private citizen with no official government title or security clearance, shocked South Koreans.

Choi reportedly communicated regularly with the president’s staff, provided input on top political appointments, and received presidential briefings, and, by Park’s own admission, was allowed to edit a number of Park’s major policy speeches. She even apparently controlled the president’s wardrobe, dictating which colors to wear on which days.

So who is this mysterious woman, and why in the world does the president seem to trust her so much?

The two met through Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, back in the mid-1970s. A dubious character with a checkered background and multiple pseudonyms, the elder Choi had by that point established a cult-like Christian sect known as the Church of Eternal Life, calling himself a pastor and claiming he could heal people. The following account of Park’s long and convoluted relationship with the Choi family comes mostly from the Virginia-based blogger known simply as “TK” (“The Korean”) who runs the well-known politics and culture site Ask a Korean.

In 1974, when Park was only 23, her mother was tragically killed in an assassination attempt on Park’s father, who at the time was South Korea’s third president. Shortly after the assassination, the elder Choi sent several letters to the grieving Park, claiming that the soul of her dead mother had visited him in dreams and that Park could commune with her mother through him. The vulnerable Park took the bait, and the elder Choi soon became a trusted spiritual guide to the young woman.

Choi quickly went about exploiting his new relationship with Park to line his own pockets, setting up various charity foundations that in practice operated as little more than slush funds. When Park’s father was killed in yet another assassination attempt in 1979 and a new leader swept into power, Park, now an orphan, became almost completely reliant on Choi, helping him run the various foundations he had set up during her father’s reign.

When the elder Choi finally died in 1994, his daughter took over her father’s role as Park’s spiritual guide, caretaker, and trusted confidante. And there she remained throughout Park’s own meteoric political rise – all the way to the Blue House, the presidential mansion.

In one of several emotional public apologies Park issued in recent weeks in the wake of the scandal, the president explained, “Living on my own, I had no one to help me with the many private affairs that needed taking care of, so I turned to Choi Soon-sil, whom I have known a long time, for help.” Park, who has never married, said it was “loneliness” that had driven her to lean on the younger Choi’s friendship and guidance.

But it seems the younger Choi didn’t just inherit her father’s spiritual role in Park’s life – she also inherited his role as a talented grifter, leveraging her power and access to the president to fund the non-profit foundations under her control, just as her father had done.

The champion horse dancer whose antics broke open the whole scandal

Choi also is alleged to have diverted some of those funds for her own personal use, including to pay for equestrian training for her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. And that’s where the whole scandal really broke open: with Chung Yoo-ra, the young gold medal champion of dressage – competitive horse dancing.

As the Korea Herald’s Ock Hyun-ju reports, when Chung was admitted to the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul in 2015, it raised eyebrows among her fellow students – namely, because the administration had evidently allowed her to bring the gold medal she’d won at the 2014 Asian Games to the admissions interview to bolster her application, in violation of the school’s policy.

Her subsequent academic performance and attendance record did nothing to assuage these suspicions, either: Despite not having attended classes, submitted assignments, or sat for exams, she was still marked as present and received top marks in all of her classes for three straight semesters.

“In one case,” Ock writes, “students were given tasks to design their own clothes and turn them in, but Chung only submitted a photo in which she wore branded clothes. Her professor was found to have done the assignment and handed it in for her.”

Students and faculty at the super-competitive women’s private school finally got fed up with all the preferential treatment Chung was getting and in October of this year began holding public demonstrations on campus, eventually pushing the university’s president to resign.

Media coverage of the university scandal quickly began to shift, though, focusing on the much juicier story of Chung’s mother, Choi Soon-sil, and her disturbingly close relationship with the South Korean president, prompting Choi to flee to Germany to escape the increasingly intense media scrutiny.

Then on October 27, one news outlet hit the jackpot.

The Korean cable TV network JTBC somehow got its hands on what the New York Times described as Choi’s “discarded” tablet computer, which had been left behind in her office – and what it found on there was astonishing. Park’s presidential speeches with Choi’s edits marked in red, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings, appointment information for presidential aides, chat messages with presidential aides, the president’s vacation schedule, and more were all there, right along with Choi’s selfie in the device’s image gallery.

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

A political scandal South Korea really doesn’t need right now

Public outrage over the level of influence Park had apparently given her unelected personal spiritual adviser sparked weeks of massive public demonstrations, some reportedly drawing as many as a million people calling for Park’s resignation. Her public approval rating also experienced a precipitous drop – it’s currently at a whopping 4 percent.

Facing an impending impeachment vote expected to take place this Friday, Park finally announced Tuesday that she would be willing to resign, though she left it up to parliament to decide when and how that might occur. Park’s five-year term ends in February 2018.

As the Guardian reports, South Korea’s constitution protects sitting presidents from being charged with any criminal offense except insurrection or treason, but prosecutors are still allowed to investigate Park, and she could potentially be charged after leaving office.

Indeed, this looks increasingly likely given recent public statements by prosecutors. At a press conference held on the same day Choi was indicted, Lee Young-ryeol, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, told reporters, “Based on our investigations, we judge President Park, to a significant extent, had an accomplice role in the crime.”

Regardless of what ends up happening, though, the political crisis comes at a truly precarious time for South Korea.

Over the past year alone, USA Today reports, North Korea has carried out two nuclear weapons tests and dozens of missile tests and launches. Experts believe its most recent test, which took place in September, was the country’s “strongest nuclear test ever.”

These tests sharply escalated fears in Seoul over the North’s growing nuclear capabilities and, as one expert noted, demonstrated Pyongyang’s ability “to launch, simultaneously and accurately, ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout Korea and Japan, including US bases and staging areas that would support efforts to defeat a North Korean attack on the South.”

Seoul’s fears have been further compounded by Donald Trump’s statements on the campaign trail regarding the US commitment to defend South Korea in the event of an attack. Trump stated that if elected, he would consider no longer defending longstanding allies South Korea and Japan unless they agreed to pay the US a lot more money to do so, and even suggested that those countries might want to consider getting their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves instead of relying on the US.

If those comments worried Seoul back when Trump was merely a candidate, once he was elected they became downright terrifying. Indeed, when news of Trump’s victory broke, stock markets in South Korea plunged, and Park convened an emergency meeting of her national security council.

Trump seemed to assuage those fears somewhat on a call with Park just two days after the election, during which he reportedly told the South Korean president, “We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea.” Yet one 10-minute phone call is probably not enough to completely alleviate Seoul’s anxiety about whether the US under Trump would truly come to its defense should the unthinkable happen.

South Korea will need strong, capable political leadership at the top to help the country navigate such tumultuous geopolitical waters in the coming weeks and months. What it has instead is a roiling political scandal and a president whose days seem to be increasingly numbered.

Under South Korea’s constitution, the country’s prime minister would take over if Park were to leave office. That would have been Hwang Kyo-ahn, the country’s former justice minister who took the post last April after his predecessor, former prime minister Lee Wan-koo, stepped down in disgrace in his own bizarre corruption scandal.

However, as Charlie Campbell writes at Time, “Park fired Hwang Kyo-ahn from the post in early November, and her nominated replacement has not been ratified by the National Assembly, leaving the possibility of a damaging power vacuum.” In other words, exactly what South Korea doesn’t need right now.

http://www.vox.com/world/2016/11/30/13775920/south-korea-president-park-geun-hye-political-scandal

 


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