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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Ironically…Soon-sil”)