Who’s in Charge of South Korea? “Choi-Gate” Scandal Rocks the Country

Published 29 October 2016 | 1,194 words | Categories: Journalism, News

An internet conspiracy theory said that South Korean President Park Geun-hye is under the control of a secret society (called the Eight Goddesses or the Fairy Eight). The alleged society was described as a council of eight Korean billionaires who ran the South Korean government from behind the scenes, using President Park as a mouthpiece.

And now, it's come to light that there's a potential truth to this.

October 2016's "Choi-gate" scandal involves President Park and her close associate Choi Soon-sil. Park Geun-hye has been accused of repeatedly leaking official government documents to her long-time friend, who often advised the President on what to do and say. Sensitive government documents were found on a computer owned by Soon-sil, who is not a government employee and doesn't hold public office. Choi's influence on Park has been present for decades, leading some to wonder who really has the power of President. Some sources say Choi organized secret meetings to run state affairs, handing out state documents to an unspecified number of people. After weeks of speculation and denial, the President made a public apology where she admitted having a connection to Choi Soon-sil.

It's also alleged that Choi Soon-sil abused her friendship with the president for personal and financial gain. Some people accused Choi of "strong-arming" companies into giving massive donations to two non-profit organizations—which she has links to. The donations may have been misused. A university official resigned after allegations that Choi Soon-sil pressured them into giving special treatment to her daughter Chung Yoo-ra.

Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's most read national newspaper, responded to the recent scandals by saying “The current government faces de-facto collapse… Park Geun-hye and her party face the worst political crisis ever.”

What's going to happen?

The history between Choi and Park

Choi Soon-sil is the fifth daughter of President Park's mentor, the late pastor Choi Tae-min. Characterized by some as a "Korean Rasputin," he reached out to Park after her mother Young-soo was assassinated in 1974. (Yuk Young-soo was the wife of the 3rd South Korean president, Park Chung-hee.) Choi had recently established a cult named Yeongsaenggyo ("Eternal Life") which combined elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and Cheondoism. Park Geun-hye may have attended masses in her early twenties, and met Choi Soon-sil around this time. Choi Tae-min was questioned about alleged corruption in 1977, but he was never charged. Park's father was assassinated in 1979 by Kim Jae-gyu, then-head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

Also in 1979, Soon-sil left South Korea to study in Germany. She returned in 1985. Choi and Park were seen together in interviews, dinners with high-ranking officials, and on business-related ventures. The Korea Times reported that the two opened a kindergarten in Gangnam, among other things.

In 1986, Park's sister Geun-ryeong wrote a letter to the Blue House, saying "[Choi Tae-min] is a crook and he should be sternly punished and my sister Park Geun-hye should be saved from his capture." No action was ever taken against Tae-min, and he died in 1994, leaving nine children behind. Choi Soon-sil was thought to be the favorite. She often appeared in public with Park.

Park Geun-hye began her political career in 1998, becoming elected as a Grand National Party (GNP) assemblywoman. Her success over the years led to the nickname "Queen of Elections" and she made significant gains for the GNP. Choi Soon-sil reportedly acted as an unofficial aide during these times, even traveling overseas with Park. In 2007, Geun-hye made a bid for President, and her unusual relationship with the Choi family even made its way into foreign diplomatic cables. Although Park's 2007 bid failed, she ran again in 2012, and was elected the eleventh president of South Korea.

Present day: Choi-gate

Investigations into a string of scandals (involving Jung Woon-ho and Byung-woo Woo) eventually led to two non-profits, the Mir (Mi-R) Foundation and the K-Sports Foundation. The foundations were approved by the government in record time (one day instead of several weeks) and raised massive amounts of money (approximately $70 million in "voluntary donations") in only two months. Some people found this suspicious. Both foundations appeared connected to companies owned by Choi Soon-sil.

The Choi family left South Korea for Germany at an unknown date. Local cable channel JTBC discovered a computer left behind by Choi. It contained hundreds of sensitive documents, including speeches given by President Park Geun-hye. Dozens of speeches appeared to have been edited by Choi before Park gave them. The media speculated that Choi was involved in much more, and had undue influence over governmental affairs. It was rumored that Choi acted as a spiritual adviser and even told President Park what color clothes to avoid. Soon-sil's ex-husband Chung Yoon Hoe was also implicated in the emerging scandal.

A day after the JTBC report, President Park Geun-hye came forward with a public apology. She said Choi was involved with giving "personal advice" during Park's 2012 run for president and subsequent inauguration. Park didn't mention any of the surfacing corruption allegations, and said she stopped getting help from Choi at an unspecified point.

A former official from the Mir Foundation claimed that Choi Soon-sil received detailed "Presidential report packets" almost every day, and held back-door meetings on government-related topics. The official, Lee Sung-han, said various people attended these meetings. He said he was present "a few times." Lee said "...it’s actually a system where Choi tells the President to do things this way or that way. There aren’t any issues where the President can decide on her own." Rumors said Choi created a council called The Eight Fairies, running state affairs.

South Koreans are outraged that a person - especially one without any government position or elected power - would have such power over what the president does or says. Choi Soon-sil allegedly had access to classified material and helped make decisions over hiring personnel.

President Park's approval ratings have plummeted to around 20 percent.

Does South Korea have a shadow government running things?

Choi's response to the scandals

From a hotel in Hessen, Germany, Choi Soon-sil gave an interview to newspaper Segye Ilbo. Choi claimed to be in poor health, with neurasthenia, and would return to South Korea when fully recovered. "She admitted receiving secret presidential documents from Park's office," according to the Korea Times, "but denied meddling in an extensive range of state affairs, including the personnel management of state bodies and diplomatic and North Korean issues. Choi also denied her alleged role in the establishment of scandal-ridden nonprofit foundations that have sucked money from big companies and built up a huge fortune."

Choi also admitted to editing at least one of President Park's speeches, but denied all other allegations. She claimed that she didn't know any of the government documents she received were classified.

Update: December 2016

A vote has impeached President Park Geun-hye, although she awaits a ruling on the legitimacy of the impeachment decision. It could take up to 6 months for judges to decide if Park is truly impeached. Thousands of people took to the streets in celebration.

Image credit: Adamara 

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