Untangling South Korea’s Bizarre, Sprawling Corruption ScandalPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features South Korea
Every weekend of this month, enormous protests have shut down central Seoul. The demonstrations stretch for several kilometers from the gates of the old royal palace and past City Hall. The protestors march in flowing, peaceful battalions, chanting and singing, waving candles and signs. It feels more like a festival than a protest. Young people, old people, high school students, farmers, office workers, mothers with toddlers in prams, all united in a single demand. ‘President Park – resign!’
Even for the most conspiracy-prone individual, the scandal engulfing South Korea is unfathomably bizarre, a multi-level maze of embezzlement and extortion involving the president’s best friend, a mysterious cult, and a crew of small-time hucksters and crooks who appear to have been running the government from behind the scenes.
However the scandal is explained, it starts with President Park Geun-hye – the democratically elected daughter of a former dictator – and her closest friend and confidant, a woman named Choi Soon-sil. Using her access to – and influence over – the president, Choi is alleged to have extorted more than $60 million dollars from Korea’s largest conglomerates in the form of charitable donations.
The scandal began with investigations into two charitable foundations run by Choi. Strangely, the foundations sprang up overnight, registered and approved in a single day, and immediately flooded with donations from corporations like Samsung, Hyundai and LG. Meanwhile, the Korean media was drawn to large campus protests at the prestigious Ewha University, whose students were protesting the admission of a young woman never attended classes yet received fantastic grades for papers that might have been written by a child. The student was Choi Soon-sil’s daughter.
Questioned about her connection to this mysteriously wealthy woman, President Park denied having any dealings with her in recent years. A few days later, reporters from a local cable news channel uncovered a laptop from Choi’s recently vacated office. On the laptop, totally unencrypted and unsecured, were drafts of presidential speeches and hundreds of policy documents, all containing memos and revisions by Choi. Park had lied. And a woman largely unknown to the public, with zero security clearance, was reviewing top secret policy documents and making changes to presidential speeches. Choi claimed that laptop wasn’t hers. It was filled with her selfies.
Again, to put this in American terms, this is bigger than Hillary Clinton’s emails. This is President Obama sending a draft of the Iran nuclear deal to a college roommate via a Hotmail account with the password ‘Obama1234.’
As the scandal has unfolded, the details have become more lurid, more compelling, more pathetic. One of Choi’s closest associates, Cha Eun-Taek, a high-flying director of K-pop music videos, has been quietly running the Ministry of Culture like a private business, redirecting large sums of public money to various personal projects. No avenue of enrichment was too small or petty for Choi and her associates. Choi even took charge of designing the presidential wardrobe, assigning the task to her lover, a male host bar waiter (of the topless kind). The cheap look of the president’s accessories and clothes did not escape the public’s attention.
Hilariously, Choi also procured medicine from a clinic illegally, and organized secret beauty procedures for the president, who entered the clinic under an assumed and obviously fake name taken from her favorite Korean drama. Again, imagine President Obama getting Botox injections in a clinic in Vegas under the name ‘Walter White.’
And yet the weirdest aspect of the story remains Choi herself, and the roots of her incredible influence over President Park. Choi is the daughter of a man named Choi Tae-min, who became Park’s most trusted advisor when she was 22. The leader of a small cult combining Christianity and ancient Korean shamanism, he claimed to have the ability to channel the spirit of Park’s deceased mother. The U.S. embassy in Seoul even noted the rumors in a diplomatic cable back in 2007: ‘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.’ When Choi Tae-min died, it seems his daughter inherited her father’s strange influence over Park.
Again, imagine President Obama letting a snake-handling southern preacher with psychic… no, you have to go all the way back to Tsarist Russia for this one. The Korean press have nicknamed Choi ‘Rasputin.’
The scandal is still unfolding. President Park has a year left in office (thankfully, presidents can only run for a single term) and is refusing to resign. All her long-time aides are under arrest, as are Choi and her various cronies. Park’s approval rate is a record low of five percent. Constitutionally unable to arrest the sitting president for corruption, the public prosecutor’s office has named her a criminal suspect. Lawmakers are drawing up impeachment plans, but this process could take almost a year.
And even if she goes, there are few compelling options to replace her. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was widely expected to make a bid for the presidency on Park’s conservative party ticket. He’s the candidate with the highest name recognition, but association with the president’s party is now electoral poison. The opposition parties have several potential candidates, but none are very inspiring or polling impressively.
Public disgust may simply result in voter apathy. Because behind the lurid details of this scandal lies the same dull reality of Korean politics as usual: greed, stupidity, and a political elite who care only for themselves. President Park ran on a promise to boost Korea’s meager welfare state for the elderly citizens who voted for her in large numbers. Instead she has allowed a gang of small-time crooks to loot the nation.
Yet the people are speaking, in weekly protests across the country, the largest seen since the country democratized in the late 1980s. The people of South Korea want a fairer society where success comes from hard work, not access to power. They want leaders with imagination and policies that support those in need.
For now President Park, alone and friendless, is carrying on as if it’s business as usual, making speeches, meeting dignitaries and appointing ambassadors. But there’s no doubt she can hear the growing cries of the crowds outside the presidential palace. Peaceful, determined, a million voices united, chanting – ‘President Park, resign!’