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[Newsmaker] The woman behind scandals plaguing Park

Throughout her nearly four years in office, President Park Geun-hye has been criticized on various fronts, ranging from her government’s slipshod response to a ferry sinking to faltering diplomacy and a lack of communication with her own aides and the general population.

Park may take credit for one thing nonetheless. She has been largely free from scandals involving family members, which pestered the presidencies of many of her predecessors, especially in later years. (Park, who has never married, has no family of her own.)

Albeit not her own, one family has tirelessly risen to the center of controversy -- that of Choi Soon-sil, Park’s old friend who is the daughter of her late mentor Choi Tae-min and the ex-wife of the president’s former secretary Jeong Yoon-hoe.

The 60-year-old Choi is suspected of having peddled influence in the launch and operation of two nonprofit sports and culture funds alongside Ahn Chong-bum, the senior presidential secretary on policy coordination.
Choi Soon-sil (Hankyoreh Shinmun)
Choi Soon-sil (Hankyoreh Shinmun)
The Mir and K-Sports foundations were respectively set up in October 2015 and January 2016 with 48.6 billion ($42.8 million) and 28.8 billion won in donations -- collected over the course of less than a week -- from major conglomerates including Samsung, Hyundai Motor, LG and SK.

Soon after they were set up, the organizations began taking charge of cultural events during Park’s overseas trips. A fresh allegation has also emerged that they have been bankrolling the training of Choi’s horseback rider daughter by providing financial support to her through two paper companies, Widec and The Blue K.

The scandal intensified late Monday upon JTBC news reports revealing 44 of Park’s speech scripts that had been retrieved from a computer left behind in Choi’s deserted office in Seoul. The texts, which should have been kept confidential before they went public, appear to have been edited by Choi up to three days ahead or as short as 12 hours before they were given by the president.

The disclosure is in line with remarks by Choi’s confidant in an earlier media interview that “the only thing she is good at is revising the president’s speeches.”

Lee Sung-han, a former secretary general of the Mir Foundation, said in another interview with the Hankyoreh daily released Tuesday that Jeong Ho-seong, one of Park’s closest aides, delivered a file as thick as 30 centimeters to Choi “almost every night” and transferred her instructions back to Cheong Wa Dae, which later turned into actual policies. Choi also ran meetings with two to five people to discuss issues ranging from Park’s schedule to inter-Korean policy and cabinet shakeups.

“The structure was in fact like Choi orders this and that. There was no issue on which the president could make a decision alone -- it was only possible with Choi’s approval,” Lee was quoted as saying.

The relationship between Park and Choi dates back to the late 1970s, when Choi’s father was head of a volunteer corps designed to promote the Saemaul Undong rural development movement of the president’s late father and longtime strongman Park Chung-hee. Choi Soon-sil then chaired the organization’s student unit.

Choi’s involvement in presidential affairs has hardly been a secret since Park Geun-hye became president. She even wore a traditional hanbok picked by Choi during her swearing-in ceremony, according to other news reports.

In 2014, another major scandal broke out after a leak of documents from the presidential office alleging Choi’s husband had been deeply interfering with human management issues and other elements of statecraft.

Yet the prosecution quickly closed the case amid criticism over its perceived slack investigation despite the suicide of a working-level police officer and the sacking of then presidential secretaries for civil affairs.

Before being imprisoned for writing and handing over the papers to reporters, Park Gwan-chun, a police superintendent who was working at Cheong Wa Dae, left a now famous saying: “In terms of the rank of power in the current administration, Choi comes first and Jeong second, followed by the president herself.”

By Shin Hyon-hee(