Back To Top

[Newsmaker] Choi scandal explained

Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of a scandal dominating South Korean politics, is now in custody and faces allegations of exerting undue influence over President Park Geun-hye in state policies and projects. The scandal is South Korea’s biggest political crisis in years, with citizens demanding Park’s removal from office. Here’s what we know so far.

Q. Who is Choi Soon-sil?

A. She is a 60-year-old woman who has never held a government post. She has been a close friend of President Park for 40 years.

She has changed her name at least twice. Her current legal name is Choi Seo-won.

Choi is also the fifth daughter of President Park’s late mentor Choi Tae-min. Her ex-husband Jeong Yun-hoe was one of Park’s longest-serving aides. He assisted Park when she entered politics in 1998 and was her chief secretary in 2002 when Park founded her own political party. 

Choi Soon-sil enters the Seoul Central District Court for questioning, with her glasses and hat removed, amid a horde of reporters Monday. (Yonhap)
Choi Soon-sil enters the Seoul Central District Court for questioning, with her glasses and hat removed, amid a horde of reporters Monday. (Yonhap)

Q. What did Choi do?

A. Choi is being investigated for a wide range of influence-peddling allegations. One is that she used her ties with Park to solicit some tens of billions of won in donations from conglomerates -- including Samsung and Hyundai -- to set up two nonprofit foundations in the name of supporting cultural and sports projects. She is also accused of meddling in state affairs and receiving regular reports on confidential information.

Choi denies all of the accusations, except that she had access to presidential speeches before they were delivered. She insists she helped Park with her speeches “out of pure intentions.” The president also admitted to having asked for Choi’s feedback. 

Q: Is there evidence of wrongdoing?

A: Aside from testimonies by Choi’s acquaintances and suspicious circumstances, there is not much hard evidence to prove Park’s acted illegally.

A tablet PC, recovered by cable TV network JTBC, could be a key piece of evidence, as it was found to have about 200 presidential documents containing classified information about a presidential staff reshuffle, diplomacy and security. It also held photos of Choi -- which appear to be selfies -- and her family.

However, Choi denies the device is hers. 

Q. Is Choi a shaman?

A. This is not certain. What we know is that Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, was an unconventional religious figure who approached President Park claiming he had been sent by her late mother. He later founded his own cult -- the Church of Eternal Life -- and a volunteer corps in which Choi Soon-sil held a post as a university student leader. Park was its honorary leader.

Of his children, Choi Tae-min is said to have loved Choi Soon-sil most for her “spiritual and intelligent” capabilities. 

Q: Why did Park keep Choi close?

A: Theories abound, but Park’s description of Choi may be self-explanatory. In a nationally televised apology last week, she called Choi “someone who helped her when she went through difficult times.”

For Park, who grew up at Cheong Wa Dae and lost both of her parents to assassinations at a young age, the Chois -- Choi Tae-min and Choi Soon-sil -- may have been like family. Park has never been married and is said to be estranged from her siblings.

Some suspect that Park’s unyielding reliance on the Chois may even be religious, and therefore more about faith than logic. 

Q. Can Park be prosecuted?

A: No. South Korea’s Constitution exempts the president from prosecution, except in cases of insurrection or treason. While the president is exempt from criminal liability, there are mixed interpretations in legal circles as to whether she is also exempt from investigation. A local bar association argues she is not. 

Q: Is Park’s presidency over?

A: It is likely over -- one way or another.

Park’s five-year presidency ends in February 2018, but polls show that a majority of the public want her to resign immediately -- an option Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling Saenuri Party are reluctant to pursue.

A more plausible alternative is for the president to step aside from state affairs, making way for a new, reinforced Cabinet led by the prime minister.

Observers say that with Park’s approval rating dipping around the 10 percent range -- a figure indicating even her core supporters have turned their back on her -- the current situation may already be deemed an “impeachment by public sentiment.”

The personnel vacuum created after Park sent away most of her key aides in a gesture of reform has also left the presidential office in a state of management paralysis. 

By Korea Herald staff / (