Each one of us acknowledges that politics is full of drama. If someone makes the brave decision of entering this insanely erratic and terrifying space, then you know they’ll experience their fair share of developing dirty secrets, scandals, corruptive tendencies and whatnot. Such is the impression which we the common people have about the field of politics and to be fair, it’s not our fault. The lack of trustworthiness the public places in politicians is all thanks to the general opportunism, hollowness and vileness observed in their words and actions. One such incident which brought to light these exact things within the political sphere of South Korea happened some years ago. This disturbing yet eye-opening incident, also popularly known as “Choi-gate”, illuminated the ever-increasing uncomfortable proximity between business and politics which strongly characterizes South Korea. That’s enough suspense, let’s unpack what really happened.
In 2016, Park Geun-hye, Korea’s first-ever female president, was forced to step down within 4 years of her term. Along with the impeachment, she was imprisoned for 24 years on grounds of bribery, abuse of power and coercion two years after. This wild train of events gets even wilder. She was accused of being in close liaison with a Choi Soon-sil, allegedly a cryptic civilian involved in some kind of a religious cult. Choi was also arrested after being charged for coercion and peddling. Not belonging from any sort of political background, she has been cited as the reason behind Park’s doom by using her strong influence over Park, from editing her speeches to dictating which clothes she must wear on which day. Let’s rewind a bit.
The story goes back to the 1970s. After Park’s mother was fatally killed in an assassination attempt at the life of Park’s father, South Korea’s president at the time, Choi’s father of the same name, Choi Tae-min, sent several letters to Park claiming that her mother had visited him in his dreams and that she could communicate with her through him. The elder Choi was the leader of the cult-like Church of Eternal Life, a Christian sect, claiming to heal people and calling himself “the Future Buddha”. After Park’s father passed away due to yet another assassination attempt, the vulnerable Park turned to the elder Choi, hence deeming him as her spiritual guide. Maybe it didn’t dawn on the naïve Park then that Choi was setting up “charity organizations” which were nothing but just avenues to embezzle the resources accumulated there. When Choi’s father passed away after some years, she took over her father’s role in Park’s life, hence beginning their tumultuous journey of betrayal, deceit and power.
One of the first accusations of corruption against Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil was back in the 1990s when the c but actually controlled by Choi’s father, was claimed to have been a source of stolen money and Park was accused of aiding Choi Tae-min in doing so. She quietly resigned from her position at the organization, despite not allowing any formal investigation to take place. Rumours emerged about the close relationship between Park and the elder Choi now and then, citing that he had “complete control over her body and soul in her formative years”, especially when she contested in the presidential elections, however, they were strangely quieted down.
Fast forward to 2007 and Park Geun-hye was again accused of indulging in corruption by a member of her own political party. His accusations were mirrored by his associate, but unfortunately, they couldn’t take a concrete form because they were both imprisoned swiftly and very quietly. Choi Soon-sil was identified as a key witness in the trial that took place, which gave rise to murmurs about her weird association with Park.
Cut to 2016, when the events started to really unfold and Choi-gate really began. Eyebrows were raised when Chung Yoo-ra, Choi’s daughter, got accepted into one of Korea’s most prestigious universities from an equestrian scholarship despite having no suitable qualifications. From the judges being arrested after not making Choi’s daughter win a school horse-racing competition to a professor at her university fleeing to the United States after merely suggesting that Chung attend classes lest she fails, it was established that Choi Soon-sil was a woman who exploited the influence and power she possessed due to her presidential connections.
After protests emerged at her daughter’s university for the biased attitude of the administration towards her misconduct and increased media scrutiny, Choi Soon-sil fled to Germany, forgetting her tablet in the hurry. This tablet turned out to be the prime evidence which spilled all the dirty, big secrets- Park’s speeches edited in red, her vacation schedule, her chats with presidential aides, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings- everything was there. When Choi returned after a few days, she was detained and then formally indicted on grounds of coercion and abuse.
Not only did her former associates turn into whistle-blowers, but tales of her directing portions of national budget into shell companies, controlling the budget for the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and firing anyone who opposed her started to emerge from anywhere and everywhere. South Korea’s biggest corporations like Samsung, Hyundai and LG found themselves caught in negative publicity when it was revealed that Choi had raised a whopping $70 million for two foundations from a lobby group of businesses, representing the before-mentioned business giants. Jay Lee of Samsung, along with the heads of the seven big companies were called in for questioning for the alleged secret meetings with the President.
The citizens of South Korea took the streets to protest and asked Park Geun-hye to resign from office. It was an established fact that she was a witness to whatever deceit Choi indulged in and someone even accused of her holding shamanic rituals at her residence under Choi’s influence, which she obviously denied. Nobody could buy the fact that she was innocent and further investigation revealed both Choi and Park were instrumental in appointing an ambassador in Vietnam, who—you guessed it, had NO required qualifications. The list is long.
Since then, the impact it has brought on the Korean society is huge. People have questioned the kind of influence a president could allow a civilian to have in matters of national importance, represented best by Choi-gate. Soon after, the liberal politician Moon Jae-in was elected as the new president.
- Referred to DW’s article dated 13/1/2017
- Referred to the Washington Post’s article dated 23/11/2016
- Referred to the Diplomat’s article dated 24/1/2017