Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, was jailed on Tuesday over allegations that she manipulated government affairs and used her influence to extort nearly $70 million from various businesses. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of a political scandal that includes allegations over occult rituals, Rasputin-esque mind control, extramarital sex, and dressage, and has many calling for Park’s resignation.
Choi presented herself to prosecutors on Monday after weeks of dodging public scrutiny while the scandal around her has continued to build. Angry protesters mobbed the prosecutor’s office while she was being questioned. One man tried to hurl a tub of excrement at the suspect and another tried to drive a tractor through the gate, telling police that he had come from his rural town to kill her. So who is Choi, why are Koreans so angry at her, and what exactly is her relationship to the country’s president?
The answer to that goes back to the 1970s when Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was South Korea’s military dictator. In 1974, Park’s mother was shot and killed by a North Korean sympathizer attempting to assassinate her father, leaving Park Geun-hye, then in her early 20s, to take on the symbolic role of the country’s acting first lady.
It was around this time that she was befriended by Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, variously described as a charismatic pastor or shamanistic cult leader. A Korean intelligence agency report from the 1970s, revealed years later, alleged that the elder Choi had initially approached Park by telling her that her dead mother had appeared to him in a dream. He ended up helping Park run a pro-government volunteer group and acting as her mentor, but it was widely suspected that their relationship went a lot deeper than that. According to a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
Park’s father was himself assassinated in 1979 by the director of his own security agency, apparently in part because of his failure to keep Choi away from his daughter and out of his inner circle. Choi Tae-min died in 1994, but his daughter Choi Soon-sil remained one of Park’s closest friends during her rise to power, culminating in her election as South Korea’s first female president in 2013.
Park’s relationship with Choi has raised eyebrows before, with rumors that Choi wielded enormous influence over the president despite having no formal title or security clearance. Choi’s ex-husband Chung Yoon-hoi was also once Park’s chief of staff. In 2014, a Japanese reporter was charged with libel for reporting that the two were having an affair and that Park had been with Chung at the time that a ferry capsized, killing 300 people that year, in part because of a slow government response. The reporter was eventually found not guilty.
The latest scandal began over allegations that Choi’s daughter had been given preferential treatment when applying to one of the country’s top universities. (This is where dressage comes in: Apparently Choi’s daughter’s grades weren’t good enough, so admissions requirements were changed to give her credit for the dressage championships she had won.) It’s snowballed from there: News channels have shown video of Choi apparently ordering presidential aides around, there have been reports that she edits Park’s speeches, has access to her schedule, and even picks out the clothes she wears in public, despite having no official position in the government. In addition to personal enrichment, Choi allegedly pushed Park to take a more hard-line stance on North Korea, including deploying a U.S. missile system over Chinese objections. Reportedly, this was because spirits had told her that the North Korean regime would soon collapse.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Choi used her connections to pressure Korean companies into donating $69 million to a foundation she has run. Some of that money apparently went to covering her daughter’s dressage training. It always comes back to dressage.
In a televised speech last week, Park acknowledged Choi’s role in editing her speeches, which included some key addresses on the country’s relationship with North Korea but didn’t address the corruption allegations. She also fired her chief of staff and seven other aides accused of helping Choi get favors for her foundation, but that may not be enough to save her presidency, with mass demonstrations against her growing and the country’s leading newspaper’s calling for her to step down.
As the blog Ask a Korean notes, Korea has seen political corruption scandals before, even involving presidents. Park’s lack of family—she’s never been married and has no children—was even seen as one of her selling points, as she was thought to have few conflicts of interest. Perhaps a little more scrutiny was warranted.