As absurd as it may seem to relate a serious political scandal to a religious cult, it is impossible to explain the current turmoil grasping South Korea without examining President Park’s decades-long attachment to the late cult leader and father of Choi Soon-sil -- Choi Tae-min.
Though Park’s suspected allegiance to the elder Choi has always been a subject of gossip, their full story had seldom been described in official channels until recently when his daughter was suddenly thrust into the public eye due to reports that she has meddling extensively in state affairs.
It is for such reason that some critics view the “Choi Soon-sil scandal” as nothing more than a belated revelation of what was in fact the Choi Tae-min scandal with roots that go decades back.
Choi, the South Korean ‘Rasputin’
The late Choi’s relationship with the incumbent president traces back to 1975, when the 23-year-old Park had just lost her mother Yuk Young-soo, wife of the late autocratic President Park Chung-hee.
Park was in shock, as was a large part of the nation, over the assassination of the beloved first lady by a bullet from a North Korean spy a year earlier.
This file photo dated June 21, 1975, shows President Park Geun-hye, then 23-years old and acting as the first lady after her mother’s assassination, attending an event to celebrate the foundation of a voluntary corps associated with a religion that Choi Tae-min created. Seen in the left is Choi. (Yonhap)
It was then that Choi, a self-proclaimed pastor and founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life, made his appearance in Park’s life, according to a report by the former Korea Central Intelligence Agency, drafted in the 1970s but published later in 2007.
Claiming himself to be a psychic and messenger of God, Choi asserted he was receiving messages from the late first lady and that Park, too, could reach out to her mother.
“Your mother has only relocated herself so as to raise you as a true leader of the nation and of the world,” Choi wrote in a letter to Park, claiming to be quoting the “spiritual message” from the late first lady.
“Whenever you wish to hear your mother’s voice, you may do so through me.”
Seemingly intrigued by these assertions, the devastated Park invited the cult chief to the presidential house for an encounter that marked the start of Park’s unshakable devotion to her “mentor” and his successor.
The somewhat dubious identity of the counsellor, who had transformed from police officer to Buddhist monk to Roman Catholic priest aspirant and then to cult founder, did not stop Park from bestowing her trust upon him.
Empowered by the full-fledged support of the strongman’s daughter, who effectively acted as first lady in the absence of her deceased mother, Choi soon started to boost his social and economic leverage, mostly by running what looked to be patriotic organizations, with Park as the nominal leader.
One such example was the Movement for a New Mind, a pro-government social group involving student volunteers that kicked off in 1978. A broadcast by KBS at the time showed Choi Soon-sil was present at the inauguration ceremony, standing next to Park as a student representative.
It was this inviolable fellowship, mostly maintained by the junior Park’s blind faith in senior Choi, which put the last straw on the social sense of crisis against the dictatorial rule of Park Chung-hee.
Kim Jae-gyu, the KCIA director who assassinated the president in 1979, later attributed his doing so partly to the president’s failure to keep his daughter from the inappropriate influence of the pseudo-pastor.
Isolated from world, obsessed with Choi
President Park’s murder, though it was a setback for a series of “social movements” led by Choi, failed to deter the orphaned Park’s devotion for him. Quite on the contrary, she grew even more dependent on the man she saw as an alternative father figure.
“We sent Choi away to Gangwon Province for a while so as to put an end to his corruptive acts,” said a military official who worked under the Chun Doo-hwan administration, which took power after Park’s death.
Park, who left the Blue House upon her father’s death, also disappeared from public attention for several years.
But her estranged siblings -- younger sister Geun-ryeong and brother Ji-man -- rekindled the perennial suggestion that Park Geun-hye was still and always had remained under the powerful influence of the cult leader.
In 1990, the two younger Parks filed a 12-page petition to then-President Roh Tae-woo, pleading their sister be “rescued” from Choi’s grip.
Despite Park’s denial and fury, the Roh administration seems to have taken her siblings’ complaints seriously. A report drafted by the nation’s spy agency in 1989-1990, the two years following Roh’s inauguration, showed the government was keeping a close watch on Choi and his family, according to TV Chosun.
The document described in detail Choi’s personal life, including his five marriages and uncounted extramarital affairs, as well as his considerable assets and religious history. Choi Soon-sil, fifth daughter and allegedly the most beloved child, was also included in the personnel information file.
The never-ending quarrel on whether Choi indeed had control over Park may be summed up in a diplomatic wire by the US Embassy in Seoul, a document made public by WikiLeaks in 2007.
A screetshot of a 2007 US embassy cable, released by Wikileaks in 2011, written by then US ambassador to Korea Alexander Vershbow on Park Geun-hye.
“Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result,” it said.
Choi’s reign continues, through her daughter
When Choi Tae-min died in 1994, at age 78, Park’s reliance upon him had not dwindled -- it had only moved onto his daughter, Soon-sil, who has also recently been known as Seo-won.
Shortly before he died, the late cult leader made more eccentric remarks than ever, according to magazine articles at the time. He reportedly said in public occasions that he was communicating directly with God and that his blood was white in color, unlike ordinary people.
Upon the death of the original “Korean Rasputin,” local dailies published obituaries describing him as closest aide to Park or custodian of her properties who paid for her living expenses.
An image taken from internet media outlet Newstapa-released footage showing Park Geun-hye (right) and Choi Soon-sil at a university campus in Seoul in June of 1979 where Park attended a public event.
By the time Park made her political debut in 1997 as lawmaker of the Grand National Party and made her initial bid as the party’s presidential candidate in 2007, the junior Choi’s name was covertly mentioned in political circles as the “invisible hand” guiding Park.
But for long, the names of other figures involved in the Park-Choi connection largely blurred the public’s eye.
Among those was Jeong Yoon-hoe, Choi’s ex-husband and the president‘s former personal assistant, who allegedly was with the president during her unexplained seven hours of silence following the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014. The mystery led many to suspect a romantic connection to her political aide.
Another was Woo Byung-woo, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, who came under fire earlier this year for his suspected involvement in a high-profile prosecutorial corruption case.
Though it was first speculated the top official was the one in control behind the consecutive irregular charges, it turned out later the actual commander-in-chief was Choi Soon-sil.
“Corruption scandals have been rampant in South Korea’s political history, but they mostly involved the family members or those close to the president,” said Shin Yul, a conservative-leaning professor of politics at Myongji University.
“But this is about the president’s integrity and leadership capacity that matters, which is why (Park) has few valid solutions at her hands.”
By Bae Hyun-jung(firstname.lastname@example.org)