The Choi Soon-sil Gate: The Saddest Political Drama Ever Told

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I am quite fond of South Korean costume dramas, though my friends are skeptical of the genre’s value. Plotting royals and devious courtiers aren’t their thing, and they are even less enamored with the endless power struggles over who gets to be master of the realm. “But it’s so predictable!” they complain.

Only if they shared my passion would they understand the latest scandal to engulf the South Korean government.

Political scandals are a dime a dozen here, and most people tune out the news. But the latest, involving Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye’s friend for decades, has been breathtaking. The revelations, about just how much influence this one woman with no official government position might have wielded over the government, point to a discomfiting possibility: Power in this country doesn’t completely belong to a legitimately elected leader. Instead, the president is in thrall to a shadowy figure who pursues her private agenda.

Like any good fictional villain, Ms. Choi is something of an enigma who has rarely made public appearances. Only a handful of her pictures were in circulation before the scandal began. Her father, a cult leader, befriended Ms. Park while the president was still a young woman and ran a non-governmental organization whose titular head was Ms. Park. Chung Yoon-hoi, Ms. Choi’s husband whom she divorced in 2014, served as an aide to the president while Ms. Park was lawmaker.

Ms. Choi’s previously hidden power over the president suddenly came under intense scrutiny when investigations began into two charitable foundations, Mir and K-Sport, both created in the past one year. In the case of Mir, the Ministry of Culture and Sports approved its establishment overnight; normally it takes a month. The country’s top companies donated to them nearly 80 billion KRW through the Korea Federation of Industries, the leading business lobby.

The problem is that these entities were reportedly controlled by Ms. Choi, whose intimates filled the key positions. Some of the money the foundations raised was funneled to at least one company Ms. Choi owns with her daughter in Germany. (The latest tally from the German media is that Ms. Choi owns 14 ghost companies in that country.) This firm bought a hotel near Frankfurt, conveniently close to where Ms. Choi’s daughter, an equestrian gold medalist at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, was training until recently and owns a house.

Resembling a princess of some faraway despotic kingdom is this twenty-year-old, Chung Yoo-ra. She lost the top spot at a national championship three years ago, and the police investigated the judges for bias. Two Culture and Sports officials, who subsequently looked into the matter but blamed the fracas on both Ms. Chung and the equestrian association that held the event, were demoted. Ms. Chung became a student at a prestigious South Korean women’s university, admitted under questionable circumstances after the university changed its admission criteria, and her attendance record is spotty to say the least. (The university president resigned on Oct. 20 over the allegations surrounding Ms. Chung.)

Early this year, European sources reported that the South Korean electronics giant Samsung even bought a magnificent champion horse, Vitana V, this year for Ms. Chung’s use.

Such tidbits of information about the family trickled down to the public in the preceding weeks until the cable TV channel JTBC found Ms. Choi’s tablet computer. In it were President Park’s speeches, received by Ms. Choi before the president officially unveiled them, with edits in red. It also contained other state documents. Naturally, all hell broke loose.

Each day since then has brought new allegations – for they still remain mostly allegations only – about how Blue House secretaries were doing Ms. Choi’s biddings; how many government policies Ms. Choi might have dictated; how many real estate holdings, bought with mysterious sources of funding, Ms. Choi has in and out of South Korea; what associates she placed in positions of power; and how she called the president her “sister” in private conversations with others and went so far as to say “I get to enjoy this much because I have stayed loyal to my sis all the way until now.”

There have been many glaring signs that Ms. Park is no leader in charge. Two years ago a leaked Blue House document blamed Ms. Choi’s husband for running the presidential house like a puppet master. A Japanese newspaper Sankei identified him as the person with whom Ms. Park might have spent seven hours alone, on the fateful day of the Sewol ferry sinking. In response, prosecutors tried the reporter for defamation. Perhaps this was an indication of the president’s sensitivity to the matter. And frankly, the few who spoke out against the power of the Choi-Chung clan over Ms. Park have seemed like a raving lunatic, considering how absurd the charge – that Ms. Park was so utterly in thrall to a single family – sounded.

(Some may recall the now-famous utterance by one Blue House official accused of leaking the internal document about Ms. Choi’s husband: “Do you know the power ranking in this country? Choi Soon-sil is number one, Chung Yoon-hoi is number two, and President Park Geun-hye is only number three.” I, too, thought it a rant of a desperate man.)  

 

South Koreans are not naïve; few believe South Korean democracy is completely democratic and free from private machinations. But at a loss to explain the idea that their president might have exclusively been performing some woman’s bidding – the president’s new nicknames I see online are “Choi Soon-sil bot” and “avatar” – South Koreans have been turning to history (and pronouncing that this country is indeed still something of a “Hell Joseon”).

Pre-modern Korean rulers bestowed favor on trusty eunuchs, religious masters and families of consorts. Presidents have been blind – perhaps willfully – to the antics of ambitious, corrupt sons and siblings. Some South Koreans are comparing Ms. Park to Korea’s so-called “last empress,” better known as Queen Min, who was notorious for her patronage of a shamaness. The queen bestowed on her an aristocratic title and untold sums of financial support, to the effect of bankrupting the royal coffers.

Ms. Park, on her part, has bankrupted her reserve of political and moral capital and made a mockery of her office.

Enough people have been saying that this scandal is more riveting than most TV dramas, and dramas will be my source of enlightenment during this trying time. I am now watching this year’s TV drama “Flower in Prison,” as well as reruns of the classic “Ladies of the Palace,” both of which tell the story of a lonely queen who befriends a woman of inferior birth. Along with the confidante’s husband, who assumes control over the court bureaucracy, they rule the realm like a personal fiefdom. The greatest beneficiary is the confidant who assumes immense wealth by peddling influence.

Even Ms. Park’s detractors begrudgingly accept that she is a tragic figure. To borrow a cliché, it is lonely enough at the top for most politicians, but Ms. Park lost both her parents to assassinations, has never married and is estranged from her siblings. Ms. Choi is believed to have accompanied her through the tumultuous years following the death of Ms. Park’s father, the late dictator Park Chung-hee, and beyond Ms. Park’s return to political life in 1998 as a member of the National Assembly.

The hitherto unsubstantiated rumor, reported widely by media both domestic and foreign (and fueled by the classified diplomatic cable from the American ambassador to Seoul in 2007 that Ms. Choi’s father “had complete control over Ms. Park’s body and soul”), is that Choi Soon-sil, like her father, must be some kind of shaman or spiritual guru. A more plausible explanation is that Ms. Park’s lack of family ties, which South Koreans once thought was reason she would never be corrupted the way many other politicians are, was her downfall, leaving her vulnerable to manipulation by others — not that her weakness is in any way excusable.

In her last televised remark on the scandal, Ms. Park apologized but insisted that she had asked an “old friend” for help with her early speeches out of a “pure heart.” But she ignored the allegations that Ms. Choi might have influenced other state affairs, just as Ms. Choi would deny the following day during her first-ever interview, with the newspaper Segye Ilbo, the allegations against herself except being Ms. Park’s part-time editor.

A photo posted by KOREA EXPOSÉ (@koreaexpsmag) on

 

There is much speculation as to what will happen next. Popular demands for the president to resign are growing but the National Assembly is deadlocked in a typical fashion. The first in a series of protests calling for Ms. Park’s resignation took place this past Saturday. Ms. Choi returned to South Korea on Sunday but freely checked into a hotel in Gangnam to spend the night. Only on Monday did she appear at the office of prosecutors and was placed under arrest. As to why it took the authorities a whole day to take her into custody is confounding not just yours truly but a vast stretch of the South Korean public.

Having watched my share of South Korean TV shows and political fiascos, I have some inklings as to how things will go. (Spoiler alert!) In “Ladies of the Palace” the queen dies and the confidante swallows poison to avoid disgrace. Ms. Park has only 15 months left on her term, and that means Ms. Choi does not have much time to spare. There will be a much watered-down investigation that fizzles out without revealing the full truth. The ruling Saenuri Party will disown Ms. Park, scheme to win the next presidency and block the opposition from conducting a belated full inquiry.

Finally, the one who ends up dead is any remnant of trust people once had in South Korea as a semblance of democracy.

Cover Image: On Oct. 29 a protester in downtown Seoul held up a poster showing Choi Soon-sil as puppet master and Park Geun-hye as a puppet. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.