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

by

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

Comments

comments

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for an excellent and in-depth look at the current situation and for clearly identifying the history and issues and possible outcomes. I have been reading a lot to try to understand all that is happening and your article is phenomenally succinct! Much appreciated!!!!

  2. I too thought this scandal was better than anything these K-drama writers could concoct. I like the fact that you highlighted how Ms. Park is a tragic figure of tragic circumstances. These people are as close to a family that she has. Her mother died when she was 23, leaving her vulnerable and heartbroken and then she lost her father, not to mention the estrangement between her and her siblings.

    She deserves everything she’s getting, but it doesn’t make me empathize with her any less. These people were using her for their own benefit and I hope Ms. Choi and her ilk are punished by the law for the billions of wons that they’ve stolen. Ms. Park needs to step down, but I know she won’t. Hopefully, the next 15 months will come quickly, so the Korean public can vote in a more capable leader.

  3. The Korean government should offer an official apology and pay reparations to Mr. Kato the Sankei Shimbun journalist who reported on Ms. Park meeting with Ms. Choi’s husband during the sinking of Sewol, and was detained on trumped-up charges for almost a year. He was onto the truth.

  4. After 10 years in Seoul, I have come to know that autumn in Korea is not just about the beautiful colors. This very unique period of time between the Chuseok holiday Sollal, holds many insights into Korea’s democracy and the relations between the government and its native people. This period of time allows ideal weather to gather together collectively and protest the government one last time before the cold winter sets in for what ever reason (foreign beef, youth unemployment, speech writing et al). I now avoid meeting colleagues who are in from outside of Korea during this time, as it usually ends up with some sort of delay. I have come to refer to this time period as the ‘갑을 계절’ where the 을 muster the courage and strength to demand democratic style justice from the corrupt 갑 that rule South Korea.

  5. Wow. Politics is dirty in every freakin country. Can’t decide which one is the worst. First time knowing tho about president Park’s back story, it’s sad but she has to be punished for all of her wrongdoings. And that Choi Soon Sil gives me goosebumps, her being related to a cult is soooo fitting.

    Thank you for this article, such a good read 💗

  6. Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve.” While it’s easy to finger point in all directions in protest, we Koreans should self-reflect ourselves living in a nation awash in cronyism and nepotism at every level of society. Our “Do as I say, not as I do” hypocritical society needs to cleanly cut its ties to feudal and dictatorial ideas of the past.

    It’s about time we put away our nationalistic pride, superficialities, self-interests, regionalism, blind idolatry, and the state propaganda. It’s about time all of us critically examine our values. Then demand truths, questioning everything, dismantle status quo, demand transparency, demand justice, demand fairness, demand meritocracy, and demand equality for ALL citizens.

    If we don’t cut out the cancer of crony capitalism, and ancient system of social order and stratification from its body now, no amount of plastic surgery will resuscitate this nation from its comatose. It will only be a matter of time when it becomes just an artificially elegant corpse.

    Only comforting hope is that Korea is still in its infancy in its democratic system. While the citizens of Korea have and will bear the brunt of its growing pains, it will all be worth it for the future generations. Instead of being mired in global shame and embarrassment, here is hoping this latest national drama will bring about an honest reflection of the nation and its people, and realization of progressive reforms in political, economical, and social systems to Korea.

    We shouldn’t waste this precious opportunity to bring about a meaningful and measurable structural change that will have positive generational impact in our country – a birth of truly an honest, free, and mature modern democratic nation. The world is watching.

  7. S Korea still seems like a 3rd world nation: corruption reigns supreme and family run businesses in bed with the political elite is the norm- all while the populace vigorously compete for limited spots in education and the work place

  8. Dear Readers:

    Worldwide our “Shaman Buster” members are watching the events of South Korea. Don’t worry my friends because this is no different than what goes on in other countries. When power goes un-checked, hopefully government has a way to stop such abuses. Women are getting a bad image by the actions of a few. We don’t like it.

    This week such abuses are coming to a halt in Seoul where power became convoluted, twisted, and corrupt. The bad guys got caught or the followers of the eight fairies. They apologized and reached down into the driest part of their soul and say this will never happen again. To late!

    Some groups want to extend absolution. Forget it-don’t do it.

    With absolution, in their mind, and in the consensus mind of the group, they can then go forward, behave, and everyone feels good, solid, and whole again. But, the notion of where one begs for forgiveness, and bows for forgiveness, is not sustainable. Our women will not stand for this.

    Not with women or the young people who push back and demand justice, and demand action for such corruption. The next thing you know there are 30,000 people in the streets of Seoul protesting that the system of acceptable forgiveness just does not work. The system needs to account for the bad behavior and corrupt thinking of the few.

    The Choi clan gamed the system and figured out that what the gypsies did in Europe 500 years ago could be duplicated in Seoul. Under the guise of religion or fortune telling, they could extort money from the businessmen and politicians who were too worried about what their political ties might yield. Today, we watched the Park clan history roll out in front of our vision like a sweet drop of sunshine but then the storm clouds rolled in. The press is calling this the “Black Magic Woman”. The master manipulator with her eight fairies.

    It is interesting because we sent our South Korea researchers to the streets to find the eight fairies but we were not looking for anyone dressed in white. Black is the appropriate color. We did not find the eight fairies on day #1. Day two was different and with a few surprises. We went to this supposed cult’s primary location: three different Christian churches where these cults supposedly started.

    A side note; how is a new Christian church going to find members? First, a charismatic leader, then a twist on the sermons, or messaging which serves those looking to get ahead. Third, the money pours in, and the next thing you know there is a shamanistic context to the story line.

    Power is at play and promises of achieving prosperity achievable with the right sermon or story. The grand seduction of getting ahead over others could be a magic spell.

    So, we know you want to know and the answer is yes. We found one member of the eight fairies and they are real, and selling their service, and promise to take anyone out of the way who gets in the way of their customers. All with promises of magic, ill-will, manipulation, slander, and downright nasty deeds.

    If the “black magic woman” and her fairies can manipulate the top money people at the Federation of Korean Industries imagine what they can do for smaller companies. What do you suppose those executives were promised for kicking in the money to the Blue K Company.

    For thousands of years this has been explained as blackmail, sex, money, greed, and power. We would never suggest this happened but, why would companies provide money into a blind corporation?

    So the contact at the church, not sure what her fairy number was, talked about her 8 fairies at work at a company called Naturalendo Tech Co, Ltd. The results of what happened to Naturalendo are true and in the public domain from 2015. The information made sense to us so we printed this story.

    We do not know this company but read the story in the papers. Apparently a group of the eight fairies met with these company executives in 2013, at the fairy’s church, to provide them the opportunity to prosper via stock benefits when the company would go public. The initial recruitment tactics which supposedly happened made our editorial team blush. Very racy, wild, events over the course of a weekend.

    The hook was set, the executives crossed to the dark side, this company went public, investors came out of nowhere, and these executives and their President made millions along with the benefactors of the fairies. Sex, money and power in play. But then greed surfaced raised it’s seductive, ugly head.

    Apparently, things went bad a year later. The story goes that the executives got greedy and crossed the fairies. They stopped giving them money, and the fairies threatened bad events and spells on these same executives. Keep in mind we were told these mudang came across very scary. Nothing happened for 4 months but then, mysteriously, the Korean FDA showed up at the Naturalendo manufacturing plant and found extensive poisonous products in Naturalendo products. They were caught cheating the system for economic gain. How did the KFDA find out? A tip, a bribe to one of the factory workers? Was it magic or bribery.

    Supposedly Naturalendo refused to cooperate with their customers in South Korea who bought the bad ingredient. Not a good way to make friends. Last year the company almost went out of business because of their issues linked with stock manipulation, arson, and falsifying production. A terrible mess. We found a blog site that called this company one of the worst cheaters in the nutritional space, globally.

    Did the fairies curse them? Our source told us some of the executives who participated are still at the company working with the mudang and expanding their cheating ways. The other executives left, in shame of course, but with millions in their pockets vs the consumers and investors who lost everything.

    The notion of the fairies as psychic merchants might be true, but also, they seemingly have become the merchants of blackmail, sex, money, greed, and power. To get to some of the hot spots of power in South Korean Commerce and Politics seems relatively easy today. We think this will change.

    From the beginning, we talked about culture, cults, business, religion and power. They all seem synonymous with each other. The young people are the future and they drive change. For sure religion is a great thing but when it becomes tainted bad things happen. The eight fairies and their mudang will survive this one but if the halls of power tighten up their body politic and extend a vision for integrity, fair play, and honor the young people have the chance to thrive and expand. Then maybe the fairies end up on side streets reading tarot cards and bones for 10 yuan.

    Our prayers are for the people and rights for women.

    Remington Shaw

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*