The History of a Scandal: How South Korea’s President Was Impeached

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The History of a Scandal: How South Korea’s President Was Impeached

The biggest scandal in South Korean history almost never made it to light.

The History of a Scandal: How South Korea’s President Was Impeached

People march toward the Presidential Blue House during a protest demanding South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s resignation in Seoul, South Korea (January 7, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Like the layers of an onion, the many aspects of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment have unfolded before our eyes like a live TV drama. As the Constitutional Court mulls its verdict on the impeachment vote, most of the picture is now clear, replete with various instances of bribery, misuse of power, illegal disclosure of government information, European shell companies, and a horse worth $3 million. Although foreign media have been very good at capturing the results and implications of the scandal, very little has been reported about the remarkable process through which the initial allegations were brought to the public’s attention, culminating in massive demonstrations on Gwanghwamun Square. What most foreign observers do not realize is how close this story came to going unnoticed and untold, like so many other allegations before it.

First, some context. Rarely translated into English, the first concrete allegations of corruption against Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil date back to the 1990s, when Park was the chairperson of the Yook-young Foundation, a charity founded by Park’s mother before her assassination in 1974. The charity, which was established to “promote improvements in youth education,” is still functioning today and estimated to possess almost $2 billion in assets. Back in the 1990s, a number of allegations were leveled at Park and Choi Soon-sil’s father Choi Tae-min, who was alleged to have been the true administrator behind the charity, managing both the charity’s finances and fundraising activities.

The allegations suggested, among other things, that Park allowed Choi Tae-min to embezzle foundation resources. Although no concrete evidence was ever produced to substantiate the allegations, Park eventually resigned, bringing the questions to a quiet but unsatisfied conclusion. No formal investigation was ever conducted, a detail you will soon see becomes a recurring theme in the many rumors and allegations surrounding Park and her associates.

It is important to highlight the central importance of Choi Tae-min in Park Geun-hye’s timeline. In the 1970s, Choi Tae-min was a key figure under Park Geun-hye’s father, then-president Park Chung-hee. Park Chung-hee tasked Choi Tae-min, among others, with promoting his “New Community” campaign, an ultra-nationalist movement that coupled infrastructure activities with grassroots fundraising. Choi Tae-min is believed to have employed his extensive but questionable religious credentials to great success in these latter efforts, establishing a number of religious organizations to collect funds. It is assumed that large portions of these funds were funneled into personal accounts and the many real estate holdings now owned by Choi Soon-sil and her relatives.

A swirl of rumors at the time also alleged Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min were lovers. These rumors continued to resurface on and off until 2011, when WikiLeaks made public a U.S. embassy memo that essentially confirmed the close relationship between the two, declaring the late pastor may have “had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” Interestingly, this memo went virtually unnoticed by the Korean public until the New York Times referenced it last October in light of the impeachment scandal.

Back to 2007 and Park Geun-hye’s first bid to secure the presidential nomination. The old rumors resurfaced. A particularly vocal opponent of Park’s bid was a member of her own party, Kim Hae-ho. Kim accused her, among other things, of receiving a house in compensation for preferentially awarding a lucrative construction contract while she was chairperson of Yeongnam University in the 1980s. This claim was never proven but, interestingly, Kim was suddenly imprisoned two months after making his allegations public, convicted of breaking campaign finance law.

The details of Kim’s trial were never made public, although a certain Choi Soon-sil was identified as a key witness. An associate of Kim was also imprisoned for slandering Park. The swiftness of both trials and verdicts was deemed irregular by some, leading to murmured speculation about a strong-arm tactic to silence them. Park would eventually lose her nomination bid to Lee Myung-bak, who would go on to become president. The Yeongnam University allegations were never followed up with any formal investigation.

Jung Woon-ho and the Macao Connection

The recent offenses culminating in President Park’s impeachment were first revealed through the most unlikely of paths: an investigation into overseas gambling. The target of the investigation was a member of the Korean mafia, a member of the Bum-seo-bang crime family, who operated an illegal gambling ring in Macao, China. While examining income ledgers, investigators stumbled upon a list of Koreans who used the gambling operation to front money for illegal currency transactions, a process often referred to as “structuring” or “smurfing.” One of the names on the list was Jung Woon-ho, then CEO of the popular cosmetics brand Nature Republic. Further investigation revealed other offenses, such as illegal gambling and tax evasion, resulting in Jung’s eventual arrest in October 2015.

In Korea, it’s a common practice to obtain leniency in criminal trials by hiring a lawyer who is a friend or alumnus of the presiding judge. This is a practice especially prevalent in appellate courts, something called “jun-gwan-ye-woo,” roughly translating as “politely lobbying the bench.” The lawyer Jung hired was Choi Yu-jeong, an ex-judge. Choi was paid at least $5 million in fees to obtain a more lenient sentence. When the desired leniency was not obtained, Jung demanded a portion of his fee returned during a prison visit by Choi. Choi refused and was physically assaulted during this visit. Choi filed suit, bringing added attention to the substantial size of the fee in question.

It is important to emphasize a sum of several million dollars is unheard of for Korean lawyers. In fact, there are normally strict regulations limiting the amount lawyers can charge. Given the substantial sum in question, it was natural for the media and public to speculate whether a portion of this fee was meant as a bribe to be passed on to the presiding judge and his associates. Choi’s lawsuit and public attention prompted the Prosecution Service (PS) to investigate further, revealing evidence of other lobbying activities through Choi’s network. The mounting evidence implicated other lawyers and judges, including one Hong Man-pyo.

Hong Man-pyo is noteworthy for two reasons. First, he was a lawyer who helped defend Jung in a previous gambling case. The details of this 2012 case were almost identical to the 2015 one. In 2012, Jung had also been caught gambling illegally in Macao, spending some $3 million. Even though the charges were identical and the evidence similar, the 2012 investigation was quietly called off in 2014, citing a lack of evidence, contrary to earlier reports made to the media. Hong was the primary defense lawyer for Jung, interacting directly with PS agents throughout the investigation. Not only this, Hong had himself been a senior prosecutor in the PS until 2011, allowing him to have close personal relationships with investigators.

Much like the “polite lobbying” of courts, Korea has long had an alumni tradition wherein senior members of a group exert influence over junior members. In this tradition, referred to as “sun-hoo-be-gwan-ge,” senior members look after the interests of the junior members, sharing benefits and influence in exchange for loyalty. This is such a common occurrence it goes unspecified in English-language news authored by Koreans because it is an assumed element of the culture. In Hong’s situation, not only were the PS agents in charge of Jung’s 2012 case his juniors in the workplace, many were also fellow university alumni. Although never proven, this left many in the media to quietly speculate Hong may have had an advantage in lobbying the PS to discontinue the 2012 gambling case.

This suggestion of tampering was supported by testimony from the Choi Yu-jeong case, which confirmed various examples of bribery perpetrated by Nature Republic. Testimony and money trails eventually led to the arrest of a judge who had presided over another case against Nature Republic in 2014. This judge had received a new car and over a million dollars in bribes. A separate but related case also revealed Nature Republic had bribed Lotte executives to permit the sale of Nature Republic products in Lotte duty-free spaces. The case resulted in the eventual suicide of one Lotte executive.

The Link to the Blue House: Woo Byung-woo

The second notable aspect about Hong Man-pyo was his association with Woo Byung-woo, the secretary for civil affairs under President Park. Both Woo and Hong had been senior prosecutors of the PS working on the investigation of ex-president Roh Moo-hyun, the same investigation resulting in Roh’s suicide. Based on testimony from an unidentified lawyer involved in Jung’s 2015 case, Hong was quoted as saying he had secured Woo’s assistance in obtaining a lenient sentence and that “you didn’t need to worry about the outcome.” Woo had quit the PS around the same time as Hong and worked with him as a lawyer from 2013 to 2014 before being picked to serve in Park’s administration in 2014. This meant Woo was a high-ranking Blue House official when Hong made the comment, suggesting the office of the president was being accessed to intervene in Jung’s criminal trial. Not only this, Woo had been a member of Jung’s defense team during the 2012 gambling case, implicating him further in previous bribery.

Like the many accusations before it, Woo’s potential involvement was not followed up by the PS. The possible link would likely have faded from public consciousness had not two other accusations about Woo surfaced around the same time, in June of last year. The first involved his son. In South Korea, military service is mandatory for men. Some of the conscripts can be assigned to become military police, stationed throughout the country in civilian quarters to handle simple duties like traffic control. This is considered one of the most comfortable positions in the military. Around the time Woo’s connections to Nature Republic were being revealed, separate reports surfaced indicating Woo’s son had been illegally transferred to a military police division. Normally, conscripts cannot be transferred until they have served a minimum of four months. Woo’s son was transferred after only two. Also, Woo’s son never had an interview scheduled, suggesting he bypassed the normal selection process. As before, no formal investigation was launched, although various military sources anonymously confirmed the facts.

The second accusation leveled at Woo was a little more serious. It involved a piece of land Woo’s sister-in-law had inherited from her deceased father. For two years, Woo had tried to help sell it without success. Suddenly, in 2011, the computer game company Nexon purchased it at a price well above market value before leaving the land undeveloped and selling it.  What is curious about this case is that one of Woo’s juniors in the PS, Jin Kyung-joon, was caught taking bribes from Nexon even while serving as the senior investigator of a user information mishandling case against them. The mishandling case was quietly discontinued because of “a lack of evidence” and both Nexon and Jin were acquitted of bribery charges this last December due to “a lack of evidence,” despite publicized money trails to the contrary. A civics group formally requested an investigation into Woo’s possible involvement with Nexon but the request was never honored by the PS.

Amid this questionable conduct by both the PS and courts, the press forged ahead with its spotlight on Woo and the Blue House, unveiling another set of journalist investigations into the Mir and K-sports Foundations, institutions we now know were fronts for Choi Soon-sil’s bribery operations. The reports at first did not implicate Woo directly, only offering Woo as one of several possible links between Choi, the Blue House, and the many corporations who made mysteriously generous donations to the foundations. Although the Woo connection has yet to be proven, the amount of attention generated was enough for the Blue House to launch a scathing defense of Woo, criticizing the media for trying to undermine the office of the president by “spreading false rumors” to create a “vegetative administration.”

As a Scandal Grows, the Blue House Strikes Back

Part of the Blue House’s defense took direct aim at the editor-in-chief of Korea’s largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo. In a surprisingly public affair, a close supporter of President Park, MP Kim Jin-tae, held a series of press conferences in August, unveiling evidence of a possible corruption relationship between a “high-ranking journalist” in Chosun Ilbo and Nam Sang-tae, the ex-CEO of Daewoo Shipbuilding who had was just come under investigation for bribery. For four days, Kim referred to the “high-ranking journalist” anonymously. In retrospect, many now speculate this was the Blue House’s way of warning Chosun Ilbo and other news outlets to back off on their reporting. When the Chosun Ilbo persisted in publishing stories about Mir, K-sports, and Woo Byung-woo, MP Kim publically named the journalist as Chosun Ilbo’s editor-in-chief Song Hee-yung, precipitating Song’s resignation.

Apparently taking the hint, reporting about Mir, K-sports, and Woo from the major newspapers virtually ceased in September. We now know a number of news outlets, including the TV news network MBC, were suppressed internally, resulting in subsequent demonstrations by journalist labor unions. Despite the drop-off, two outlets persisted. One was Hankyoreh, which was the first to present evidence linking Choi Soon-sil to Mir and K-sports. The second was JTBC, the TV news subsidiary of JoongAng Ilbo.

The Scandal Hits Home: Choi Soon-sil in the Cross-hairs

In early October, JTBC, likely recognizing the political assassination of Song, assembled a special team to perform a more thorough investigation of Mir and K-sports. Their first big catch was a series of interviews with an ex-employee who worked with the foundations. This individual, who still remains anonymous, provided both testimony and evidence showing Choi met frequently with the various heads of Mir and K-sports. Then, on October 18, the all-important Choi Soon-sil tablet was discovered. JTBC maintains the tablet was found abandoned but one must wonder if it was purposely supplied.

Six days later, JTBC first revealed its possession of the tablet. Perhaps following the same strategy used by MP Kim, JTBC chose not to reveal everything at once. Instead, they declared the evidence on the tablet would be revealed slowly over a 20-day period. The first tidbits of disclosure showed sensitive government information on the tablet, information that should never be in the hands of a civilian. JTBC took its time, suggesting various members of the Blue House who may have been capable of supplying the information, pretending at first not to know exactly who it was. This gave time for Choi to go on the record with a Korean newspaper, Segye Ilbo, flatly denying she had ever seen or used the tablet.

For several days, JTBC focused its attention on showing how President Park’s speeches appeared to have been edited directly on the tablet, contradicting the original drafts supplied by ex-Blue House staffers. Several of these ex-staffers came forward to declare their knowledge of Choi’s involvement, adding fuel to the fire. On October 25, President Park gave her first public apology, saying in vague terms she sometimes “relied on Choi in times of hardship.” Park neither addressed nor denied the speech editing allegations, even though JTBC had already handed the tablet over to PS agents the night before. Even with the evidence continuing to accumulate in the media, the PS declared they did not see a reason to investigate Choi. They also stated they did not know where Choi was so could not summon her for questioning.

Once the official statements by Park and Choi were in, the trap slammed shut on October 26. JTBC revealed digital evidence including email trails of where the tablet files came from and registration information for the tablet, showing Choi likely received it from a Blue House staffer named Kim Han-soo, who incidentally, was a close friend of Choi’s in-law. JTBC also showed convincing digital evidence proving the tablet had to have been used by Choi and that she had connections to the “doorknob triumvirate.” Like before, JTBC played its hand carefully, giving just enough to disprove official denials. Evidence of Choi’s tablet use was later confirmed and expanded on by the PS in December.

Also on October 26, the German police first announced they had already been in the process of investigating Choi’s German businesses and were trying to track her down for questioning over illicit business practices. The same day, JTBC ran a live broadcast of a reporter outside one of Choi’s abandoned homes in Germany, knocking on the door and interviewing neighbors. Choi had apparently left in a hurry. This led to a belated admission by the PS they had been aware of both her foreign residences and the overseas investigation, contradicting their previous claim of not knowing where she was. Why the PS would fail to disclose this knowledge remains a mystery.

We now know from recordings of phone calls released during the recent parliamentary hearings in December that Choi, in Europe at the time, made contact with various members of her network, working feverishly to portray JTBC’s story as fabrication. Likely because of the pressure she was feeling from German police, Choi eventually reentered Korea on October 30. What is inexplicable about her return is that the PS allowed it. In a number of other high-profile corruption scandals, potential suspects had always been apprehended at the airport, often with media crowds to record the triumph. But this time was different.

Even though the PS later admitted they were aware of her return, they still allowed her to remain free for 31 hours after her return before finally arresting her on November 1. This delay created uproar in the media, who accused the PS of giving Choi time to destroy evidence and prepare her defense. In fact, Choi’s return to Korea would have gone undetected had not a civilian bystander at the airport accidentally caught sight of her and submitted photos to the press. This fueled more public outrage by lending credence to idea the PS was quietly aiding Choi.

The lackadaisical nature of PS activities did not end there. On October 26, a whopping 27 days after an official PS case for the Mir and K-sports allegations was opened, PS agents finally conducted their first raid on Mir and K-sports offices. Not only was the raid recorded by the media but the agents were caught carrying empty evidence boxes into the offices and the same boxes, still empty, out, indicating they had not collected anything at all. These unexplained deficiencies in perceived competence are largely credited for having motivated the burgeoning demonstrations witnessed in late October and early November. As a continuous flow of new evidence was unveiled by JTBC and other news networks, the PS finally began calling suspects in for questioning, beginning with Choi Soon-sil on November 1.

By this point, Woo Byung-woo was again in the crosshairs of the media and public as the most likely suspect to have facilitated any PS tampering on Choi’s behalf. The claim of such tampering remains to be proven but it should be noted Woo’s mother-in-law now appears to have been one of Choi Soon-sil’s golf buddies, increasing the likelihood of some level of interaction.

The Political Tide Turns

Woo resigned from his post in the Blue House on October 30, along with a number of other Blue House staff. When Woo was first called in for questioning by the PS in early November, a civilian bystander again submitted inflammatory photos to the press, showing a very relaxed Woo having what appeared to be a casual conversation with smiling and laughing PS agents, nothing like the stern questioning expected from the public. Perhaps the relaxation was because he really had nothing to do with Choi. Perhaps it was because he was talking to one of his juniors, a friend.  Whatever the case, the images helped precipitate the first million-strong demonstration that weekend. This demonstration, in turn, helped to prompt political action for the first time.

In the early stages of President Park’s scandal, most politicians, regardless of party, had approached the situation with caution. Only when public support for Park dropped below 5 percent did MPs and party leaders begin to speak out and join the protests. By mid-November, the PS was starting to make official statements about the inevitability of an investigation of the Blue House. Park dug in, declaring she would not submit to investigation unless impeached.

Since the Korean constitution states all branches of government receive their power and authority directly from the office of the president, there were sincere questions about whether a sitting president could be investigated. Most scholars agreed an investigation was constitutional but there was no precedent, creating the possibility of a long, protracted legal battle. It was amid the possibility of this deadlock that opposition political parties finally started to seriously discuss the possibility of impeachment, culminating in a successful vote on December 9.

At various points during the buildup to the vote, engaged members of the public continued to aid the media by supplying evidence to disprove various denials made by key suspects. In the case of Kim Ki-choon, members of the public proved he was lying when he said he had never even heard the name Choi Soon-sil before by showing footage of his involvement in a hearing where Choi was discussed at length. When Woo Byung-woo suddenly disappeared in early December, it was a team of public whistleblowers who supplied evidence of his whereabouts, culminating in his appearance for questioning in parliamentary hearings on December 22.

As someone living in Korea and having watched history unfold these last few months, it has been impossible to shake the feeling the media did what the Prosecution Service was reluctant to do. Without media involvement, the engagement of bystanders, and the propinquity of various storylines coming together, it appears possible and even likely the Choi Soon-sil scandal would have been snuffed out like so many other allegations before it. It was only after Park had been impeached and a special prosecutor assigned that more proper investigations began, culminating in the parliamentary hearings and the shocking indictment of Samsung’s chief, Lee Jae-yong. The courts, unfortunately, have yet to demonstrate a change from the norm, flatly denying the special prosecutor’s request for a warrant to arrest Lee, citing “a lack of evidence” despite overwhelming media coverage and Lee’s own admissions in parliamentary hearings to the contrary.

Based on the evidence presented here and in those hearings, it becomes difficult to view the current presidential scandal as a single, isolated incident. Instead, the picture painted depicts a deeply embedded tradition of backdoor dealings on an epidemic scale affecting all levels of government, especially the very bureaus that should be overseeing justice. Beyond influence-peddling, the scandal extends to strong-arm tactics to suppress the truth by manipulating the press, questionable due process in the courts, and possible tampering with the Prosecution Service.

Had it not been for Choi Soon-sil’s tablet, Park may have never been impeached. One can only hope this is the beginning of a new, more transparent democracy in Korea where an honest, brave media continues to play a central role in informing the public, especially when the allegiances of the PS are called into question. It remains to be seen how far the public will reward the media’s bravery by continuing to motivate cultural and institutional change through peaceful protest and activism. Although Park was impeached, true change will require a lot more. For those of us keeping track of history, it is important to note the ex-PS prosecutors Hong Man-pyo, Woo Byung-woo, and Jin Kyung-jin still remain free men, unimprisoned and uncharged.

Justin Fendos is a a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.