When allegations that a woman named Choi Soon-sil edited the South Korean president’s speeches and influenced her decisions started many months ago, they were so fringe, so feudal, so unbelievable that no one could take them seriously.
But as evidence has quickly unfolded over those claims and others, Park Geun-hye is now facing the biggest crisis of her presidency, threatening to cut her term short as the government’s top echelon braces for a personnel upheaval.
The subject of every front page in the country, Choi has been more than a friend to Park for the past four decades. Choi, the daughter of Park’s former mentor (himself once a cult leader), was there for Park during the hard times when her parents – a former dictatorial president and his wife – were assassinated. They worked together in their youth on an organization funded by big business to promote “moral education.” Choi’s ex-husband even served as chief of staff for Park when she was a lawmaker, and was incidentally the man allegedly accompanying Park outside of the Blue House on the day the Sewol ferry sank in 2014.
Through this close bond, Choi has become the premier confidant of a woman who is known to depend on a small inner circle for her every decision. Choi did not merely receive dozens of Park’s speeches to edit, according to a news outlet that uncovered her discarded computer with some 200 classified files, which allegedly included personnel lineups and military documents. She also controlled the clothes the president wore and ordered around her aides, according to local media.
Choi also allegedly pressured top conglomerates to donate 80 billion won ($70 million) to two nonprofit organizations rubber stamped by the government to serve as slush funds for real estate, Park’s retirement, and equestrian training expenses for Choi’s daughter, Olympic aspirant Chung Yoo-ra.
The alleged corruption bleeds past government documents and slush funds. Students and faculty at Ewha Womans University have protested over shady practices as the school accepted Chung on its first and only equestrian scholarship, and argued that her grades were inflated.
The “Choi Soon-sil-gate” ring reaches farther than anyone imagined, with secretaries Ahn Jong-beom and Jeong Ho-seong standing among presidential aides accused of involvement. Agencies suspected of foul play include the presidential Blue House, the Federation of Korean Industries, the culture ministry, and a creative economy task force. Even the president of the prestigious Ewha Womans University stepped down after allegations that the school bent the rules for Choi’s daughter to be accepted.
Park vowed at the outset of her presidency to crack down on the corruption that plagued nearly every one of her predecessors. But her efforts appear superficial. After promising to end the tradition of pardoning imprisoned big-business moguls known to hold hands with the government, she let off conglomerate chairman Chey Tae-won to boost the economy and the national mood. After collusion between regulators and the shipping industry was found to have led to the tragic 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, which killed over 300 passengers, Park pushed for the passage of a sweeping anti-corruption law that affects 4 million Koreans. Yet the first person put on trial under the controversial act was a man who gave $40 worth of rice cakes to a police officer as thanks for helping him. Meanwhile, there are few checks to enforce transparency on the secretive daughter of a dictator, who keeps her discourse with the public to a minimum.
Choi, who is hiding out in Germany, came to Park’s defense, claiming the president had only the most genuine intentions and dedication to her country. Park made a brief apology for sharing the speeches with Choi, saying she did it with a “pure heart.” The public has responded in outrage, with protesters taking to the streets and social media alight with mockery and demands for her impeachment.
With the government at a standstill, investigators have begun probing several agencies and their chiefs for involvement. Predictably, the Blue House remains mum on a resolution, with Park slinking to meetings with party leadership as the storm continues to pick up. Now even her own party is pressuring for her to leave it and clean out her cabinet.
“I don’t think she can afford to be isolationist any longer,” says Kim Jae-chun, a political scientist at Sogang University. “I think she has to pull out of all domestic politics, and she will have to do it quickly.”