In October 2016, South Korea’s biggest political scandal is revealed: hundreds of thousands of people are protesting into the streets in order to fire President Park Geun-hye. The scandal is quickly identified by a term: the “Choi-gate”. This expression is due to the implication of President Park’s close friend Choi Soon-sil, the centrepiece of this huge corruption system. Altogether, in less than four years, Choi squeezed out 60 million euros from major South Korea companies. Voicing Realities sums up the entire case at a time when President Park’s political career has come to an end, a few hours after her deposition.
Who is Choi Soon-sil and how did she proceed?
Choi Soon-sil has been the President Park Geun-hye’s best friend since the 1970s. Their fathers were close friends as well: Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, was the preacher of the Church of Eternal Life, classified as a cult, and Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was President of South Korea from 1962 to 1979.
This strong friendship reached another level in 1974 when Yuk Young-soo, Park Geun-hye’s mother, was murdered. Choi Tae-min asserts that he can communicate with her in the after life, and that he passed his gift onto his daughter Choi Soon-sil. From that moment, the latest becomes the future President’s confidante. This particular friendship is today contested and scrutinized: Choi used her friend’s trust and power to grow wealthy, and make her foundations prosperous. But how?
Thanks to chaebols, a term that defines South Korean conglomerates: Samsung, Hyundai or LG are the main ones. These major, internationally-renowned firms are owned by powerful, wealthy families; they are deeply linked to the political power, as the national economy heavily relies on these companies – Samsung represents around 20% of the South Korean Gross Domestic Product (GDP) –. Due to these firms’ closeness to power and her influence on President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil succeeded into building her wealth and financing her foundations, by obtaining funds from these chaebols in exchange of political and commercial favors. Overall, 52 groups gave her money.
Samsung for instance is accused of having provided 35 million euros to two foundations managed by Choi Soon-sil, Mir and K-Sports. In exchange, the Korean government has approved the merger of two branches owned by Samsung, Samsung C&T et Cheil Industries. The scandal also impacts the electronics company; in February, Vice-President of Samsung Lee Jae-yong was charged for bribery, misuse of company assets and perjury. Other companies are in this situation, and Choi’s influence goes sometimes even further. For instance, Hanjin, owner of the airline company Korean Airways and of a nearly bankrupted freight company, provided a million euro to Choi, in order to get its rescue plan approved by President Park; but Choi, who is nicknamed Rasputin by the media, estimated that this sum was not important enough and ensured the rescue plan was refused.
Apart from Choi’s total influence over the State’s decisions, bizarre expenses were encountered in the Presidency’s budget. For example, Viagra and its equivalent Pal-Pal were ordered in abnormal quantity, reportedly to handle Park’s altitude sickness when visiting African countries whose capitals are high altitude towns; this led to controversies on how the State’s budget was managed. These additional information made things worse for President Park Geun-hye, who was already highly weakened by the Choi-gate and by popular demonstrations.
What are the South Korean population’s reactions?
Ever since the affair was publicly revealed, demonstrations are organized in order to demand President Park’s deposition. These demonstrations are the biggest observed since 1987, when the South Korean people fought to re-establish the President’s election through direct universal suffrage – Korea was a dictatorship back then.
French researcher Juliette Morillot asserts that the Choi-gate reminds Korean people of dark times in their country’s history. She explains that South Korea has known many cases of corruption over time, as well as various “puppet monarchs” who were under religious leaders’ influence. That is the case of Empress Myeongseong, whose husband was Emperor Gwangmu; she was under the influence of a religious woman during a very tense period for South Korea, when it was on the verge of being annexed by Japan through an unequal treaty. Popular demonstrations triggered by the Choi-gate prove the level of indignation in the country.
Choi Soon-sil was arrested on October 30th when she returned from Germany, where she first took refuge to avoid judicial proceedings.
Logically enough, and despite Park’s attempt of cooling things off and bringing her authority back by firing members of her government, the Parliament voted her demission in December. This decision needs to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court; the Court’s ruling will be known on March 10th, but it is less and less likely that President Park will be in power until the end of her mandate in 2018.
Update March, 10th: President Park Geun-hye has been dismissed today by the Constitutional Court, a first in South Korea’s history. The Guardian reports that Court President Lee Jung-mi asserted that Park’s schemes had “seriously impaired the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, (…) her actions betrayed the people’s confidence. They are a grave violation of law, which cannot be tolerated.”
A new presidential election will take place on May, 9th; according to a Gallup survey (March, 10th), Moon Jae-in, who lost the election to Park in 2012, is favorite to win with 32% of voting intentions. Until then – and ever since Park’s destitution in December – Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will be in power.
Featured image: President Park Geun-hye embarks on her 4 Middle Eastern Countries, March 1, 2015 – © Official Photographer: JEON HAN via Flickr.