On Wednesday, Nov. 2, South Korean prosecutors announced their intentions to file criminal charges against Choi Soon-sil, a private citizen who wielded tremendous influence over President Park Geun-hye.
Over the past several weeks, scandals have engulfed Ms. Park and her administration for her connections to Ms. Choi, who has no background in state policy and never held a job in government.
According to a New York Times article published on Nov. 2, the South Korean prosecutors plan to charge Ms. Choi, who was detained on Oct. 31 for questioning, for “influencing peddling, abuse of power and attempted fraud.” In seeking a warrant, according to the same Times article, the prosecutors informed a court in Seoul, “that she had used her influence with Ms. Park to coerce large companies into donating nearly $70 million to two foundations she controlled.”
Ms. Choi’s influence over Ms. Park ranged from editing major speeches to deciding the wardrobe of the president. Ms. Park’s dependence on Ms. Choi resonates with many South Korean citizens who criticized their president as “disconnected” and relied too heavily on only a “trusted few.” Their frustration reached a climax on Oct. 29 when tens of thousands of citizens in cities across the country gathered to demand Ms. Park resign.
The president faces strict scrutiny and, according to an NPR article published on Oct. 29, an approval rating of 14 percent, an “unprecedented low.”
In a rare nationally-televised address, Ms. Park stated, “Regardless of the reasons involved, I am sorry that it has caused national concerns. I deeply apologize to the people.”
While these scandals haunt Ms. Park and her administration, according to a New York Times article from Oct. 27, “the real drama is that Ms. Choi is the daughter of a religious figure whose relationship with Ms. Park had long been the subject of lurid rumors.” The same article noted that many compared Choi Tae-min, the religious figure in reference, to Rasputin, a religious leader in Russia who exerted influence over Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.
Mr. Choi founded the Church of Eternal Life, an obscure religious sect, in the 1970s. According to a report from CNN from Nov. 2, Mr. Choi mixed “aspects Christianity, Buddhism and indigenous Korean religion Cheondism, which incorporates elements of shamanism.” He befriended Ms. Park following the assassination of her mother in 1974, while Ms. Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was president and ruled as a military dictator.
Mr. Choi quickly became a mentor to Ms. Park and helped her run a pro-volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind. According to the South Korea National Intelligence Service (NIS), Mr. Choi used his connections to the Park family to secure bribes.
Following the assassination of her father in 1979 by Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the KCIA, Ms. Park expressed her gratitude for Mr. Choi’s support during “difficult times” and considered him a “patriot.”
Mr. Kim cited Mr. Park’s inability to stop the corruption of Mr. Choi. Her relationship with the Choi family plays a central role in the current scandals and rumors of Ms. Choi’s meddling in Ms. Park’s administration arose in 2013.
On Nov. 2, in an attempt, to create amends with the public, Ms. Park replaced the country’s prime minister, the No. 2 official in her government, with Kim Byong-joon, a progressive leader hated by many of Ms. Park’s conservative colleagues. He served as chief policy coordinator for President Roh Moo-Hyun.
According to the New York Times article, “Mr. Kim’s appointment as Ms. Park’s deputy is seen as an overture to the progressive opposition parties as the president nears her last year in office.”
He replaced Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, even though he had not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Ms. Park also fired eight presidential aides on Oct. 30, including her chief of staff and, on Nov. 2, replaced her chief economic minister and domestic safety minister.
On Nov. 4, Ms. Park offered her people a second apology. “All of this happening is my fault. It happened because of my neglect,” she said in a televised speech.
Following her apology, her approval rating drooped down to five percent, a decrease of nine points in just a few days.
On Nov. 5, one day after her speech, thousands of South Koreans gathered in Seoul to demand the resignation of Ms. Park. According to official sources, the number of protesters range from 40,000 to 100,000 people.
Professor Joyce Madancy of the History Department informed me, “The crisis continues to escalate, despite President Park’s public apologies and the firings, and more demonstrations are scheduled for the coming days.
South Korea is a young democracy, but one in which public demonstrations have often heralded major progressive changes.”
She continued, stating, “Many Koreans are deeply angered and concerned at what they see as President Park’s attempts to crack down on dissent, and the notion that the democratic process has been further subverted by Park’s relationship with Choi is deeply troubling to them.”
Ms. Park’s term as president will come to an end in February of 2017. Her five-year term is nonrenewable.