South Korea has been rocked by protests over the influence peddling of Choi Soon-sil, the close friend and so-called “shaman adviser” to President Park Geun-hye. Over the weekend, Choi came to Seoul for an interrogation by prosecutors as calls grow for President Park to resign. FT explains:
Ms Choi returned to Seoul over the weekend amid an escalating furore over allegations that she had exerted control over the president on issues from key policy decisions to what clothes and accessories the president should wear. Allegations are swirling that Ms Choi used her relationship with Ms Park to press top Korean companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to foundations she controls and that her daughter received preferential admission to a top university. Ms Choi denies the claims.
The frequency of corruption cases in the north-east Asian nation has made them an almost customary affair. Yet this episode stands apart for its mystical overtones. Ms Choi entered the world of high politics through her father, Choi Tae-min, a shadowy religious figure linked to cult activities.
The origins of the scandal go back to 1975, when Park, the daughter of South Korea’s dictator Park Chung-hee, befriended Choi Tae-min, a cult leader who convinced her that he could communicate with her late mother from beyond the grave. The elder Choi, sometimes described as a “Korean Rasputin,” profited from his closeness to the family by creating a series of phony foundations, with Park as their nominal head. Following his death, Choi’s daughter became Park’s close confidante and followed in her father’s footsteps. Choi allegedly ran several non-profits as slush funds, gained access to confidential government briefings and budget proposals, and was allowed to edit the President’s major speeches—all in her capacity as a private citizen.
South Korea is no stranger to corruption scandals, but this case, with its implication that Park was the puppet of a religious fraudster, has struck a nerve. In a poll last week, 40% of South Koreans said they wanted President Park to resign. Park has issued a brief apology and accepted the resignations of her top political aides, but she has stymied the investigation in other ways. The president denied prosecutors entry to the presidential office this weekend, and has not speedily turned over requested documents. Leaders of South Korea’s three major parties are meeting in the National Assembly this week to discuss how to handle the leadership crisis.
However this scandal turns out, it is another unwelcome headache for the United States in an Asia increasingly beset by turmoil and uncertainty.