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Choi Soon-sil

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Three Presidents Face Jail

Presidents and prime ministers who start wars still don’t go to jail, but in democratic countries it is getting common to see presidents facing jail for corruption. In fact, we have had three since last Friday.

In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $17 million on Friday for bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other offences. She is guilty as charged, but she is also a victim.

On Saturday, former South African President Jacob Zuma appeared in a Durban court to face corruption charges over a $2.5 billion arms deal soon after his own party forced him to resign a year before his term ended. Since Zuma’s former financial adviser has already served jail time on identical charges, his chances of a happy retirement seem rather slim.

And on Sunday former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as ‘Lula’, began serving a 12-year jail term for corruption. However, he’s probably not guilty of anything that would justify his imprisonment.

That’s three gone or going in one weekend, and there are others in the queue – like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces charges that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi illegally funded his 2007 presidential campaign.

Running a country is clearly a high-risk job, and the people who get the job tend to be risk-takers. Not all of them are rich, and they are exposed to many temptations. Nevertheless, not all cases of corruption are about simple self-enrichment.

Ex-president Park’s was not, although she collected at least $35 million in bribes from major Korean companies including Samsung and the giant retailer Lotte. But Park Geun-hye was doing it all at the behest of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a preacher and cult leader who won the trust of Park’s father more than forty years ago.

The ex-president’s father, Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea as a military dictator in the 1970s. When Park Geun-hye’s parents were both assassinated, the orphaned girl was befriended by the preacher’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, who established a comparable control over her.

In 2013 Park Geun-hye was elected to the presidency, but Choi Soon-sil’s influence never weakened. The bribes that Park received while in office almost all went to foundations controlled by Choi. Both women have gone to jail, and both deserved to, but Park was as much a victim as a villain.

Jacob Zuma’s is a simpler story. He was a major figure in the African National Congress during the decades of struggle against apartheid, first in prison on Robben Island and then in exile as the ANC’s head of military intelligence. (His former chief of staff in that job once described him to me as a “military genius”.)

But Zuma had no money, and when he got political power in post-apartheid South Africa he set about to remedy that problem. There has never been any real doubt that he benefited enormously from the arms purchase deal, and he was forced to resign the deputy presidency in 2005 – but after he was elected as leader of the ANC in 2007 he managed to get the charges dropped.

By 2009 he was the president of South Africa, and for the next nine years the charges remained in abeyance. When he was forced out of office two months ago for further brazen acts of corruption and for general economic mismanagement of the country, the charges were resurrected almost instantly, and now he faces a world of woe. About time, too, many would say.

And Lula? There probably was no crime in the first place. Brazil is going through an enormous corruption scandal and more than half the members of Congress face charges, but so long as they control Congress and the presidency they can probably stave them off. An election is due in October, however, and Lula would probably win it – if he were not in prison.

The crime he is charged with is petty by Brazilian standards: accepting free renovation work when his wife moved to a bigger holiday apartment in the seaside town of Guaraju. His judgement may have been clouded at the time, because he was fighting cancer, but in any case
he was no longer in office and unable to do any political favours in return. He denies the whole thing, but at worst it was foolish to accept the help, not corrupt.

Lula still lives in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, 20 km from Sao Paulo, in a modest house within walking distance of the steelworkers union headquarters where I first interviewed him almost forty years ago. He is an honest man of simple tastes, but at the moment he is sitting in jail.

He still has an appeal working its way up through the courts, but it’s unlikely to set him free. The real reason he is in jail is to keep him from contesting the election, so there he will stay.

The rule of law is an excellent thing, but no system devised by human beings is invulnerable to manipulation by other human beings.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“That’s…campaign”; “The ex-president’s…her”; and “Lula…jail”)

A South Korea Rasputin

“Sad thoughts trouble my sleep at night,” said South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. “I realise that whatever I do, it will be difficult to mend the hearts of the people, and then I feel a sense of shame.” And so she should, but it’s also hard not to feel some sympathy for her plight. This isn’t your usual political corruption case. She never benefitted from her actions in any way.

Despite Park’s televised apology on 4 November, the opposition-controlled National Assembly voted on Thursday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the president, and anti-Park demonstrations continue daily. As a sitting president, she cannot be prosecuted, but prosecutors will begin questioning her next week.

They also interviewed senior management officials at Samsung, Hyundai and Korean Air about allegations that they were pressured into donating millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of President Park. Even if the claims are true – and they probably are – Park deserves more pity than anger, for she couldn’t really help it.

She was only nine when her father, General Park Chung-hee, seized power in South Korea in 1961. She was 15 when North Korean special forces infiltrated Seoul and launched an assault that got within metres of the presidential Blue House. And she was 22 when an assassination attempt on her father miscarried and killed her mother, Yuk Yeong-su, instead.

It was then that pseudo-Christian cult leader Choi Tae-min, who had set up his own religious group known as the Church of Eternal Life, befriended the grief-stricken and isolated young woman. He told her that her mother had appeared to him in a dream, asking him to help her daughter, and she fell for it.

Choi became her mentor, a relationship that became even closer after her own father was also assassinated in 1978. The lonely young woman also grew close to Choi’s daughter, Soon-sil, who was only four years younger – and that bond persisted even after Choi Tae-min’s death in 1994.

Meanwhile Park Geun-hye was getting on with her life, getting elected to her now democratic country’s National Assembly in 1998 – but her top aide was Choi Soon-sil’s ex-husband. She has been in the Choi family’s clutches for her entire adult life, and they really hit the jackpot when Park won the presidential election in 2012.

Ironically, South Korean voters chose Park mainly because they thought she would be uncorruptible. Every other South Korean president since the non-violent democratic revolution in 1987 has been investigated for corruption, usually with good reason. If they didn’t steal themselves, their immediate families did it for them. Two presidents went to jail, and one committed sucide after leaving office.

The dictators who came before them had stolen too. It was practically a national tradition. But Park was different: she lived modestly, and she had no family to speak of. She had been estranged from her siblings for a long time (because of her relationship with Choi). Everybody knew the family was split, but they did not know much about Choi Soon-sil.

Choi had no official position in Park’s government, but she and her rather bizarre inner circle – including her personal trainer, her personal gigolo, and a K-pop musical video director – had direct access to the president. Choi, who had no security clearance, regularly received secret government documents and even edited the president’s speeches.

Choi Soon-sil also used her advance knowledge of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s budgets to steer her cronies into the right bids for government contracts. She also shook down major South Korean corporations for millions of dollars on the strength of her claimed influence over the president. In total, some $70 million is alleged to have gone to Choi’s two “non-profit” foundations.

Whether Park Geun-hye was aware of these “donations” is unknown, and the authorities have not yet gone through the books of the foundations to see if Choi was draining off funds for her personal use. But on the latter count, at least, suspicions are strong.

What triggered Choi’s downfall was her attempt to get her not-too-bright daughter admitted to the prestigious Ewha Women’s University, claiming she had the president’s support. The girl was accepted, but the students launched a public protest against this breach of the university’s rules. Getting into the right university is as important in Korea as it is in Japan, and fairness in the selection process is sacred.

At this point, late last month, Choi and her daughter gave up and left for Germany – but she left an unencrypted laptop behind in her abandoned office in Seoul with all the details of her manipulations. It was found by cable TV network JTBC, and the fat was in the fire.

Choi is probably going to jail, her daughter is not going to university, and President Park is going…where? She has only fifteen months left of her five-year term, and the opposition parties would probably prefer to leave her in power, bleeding all over her own party’s credibility, rather than face an uncertain election now. But she is finished politically, and that just feels sad.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Ironically…Soon-sil”)