(Ask a Korean) President Park Geun-hye is deep trouble. Park’s confidant Choi Soon-sil has been running a massive slush fund, as she extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations. Soon-sil was receiving confidential policy briefings and draft presidential speeches and rigged the college admission process so that her daughter would be admitted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. This small event has turned out to be the first step toward the president’s ruin, as Ewha students’ protest over that preferential treatment developed into the larger investigation about the relationship between Park and Choi Soon-sil.
But the English language coverage of this scandal is missing something. The newspapers do have most of the facts, which they recount diligently. But they fail to fully account for the Korean public’s stunned disbelief. Although the scale of the corruption here is significant, Koreans have seen much, much worse. Not long ago, Korean people have seen Chun Doo-hwan, the former president/dictator, made off with nearly $1 billion, and this was back in the mid-1980s when the money was worth more than $4 billion in today’s dollars.
Even the democratically elected presidents of Korea–every single one of them–suffered from corruption charges. Lee Myung-bak, the immediate predecessor to Park, saw his older brother (himself a National Assemblyman) go to prison over bribery. Lee’s controversial Four Rivers Project, which cost nearly $20 billion, was widely seen as a massive graft project to push government funding to his cronies who were operating construction companies.
For better or worse (mostly worse,) Korean people have come to expect corruption from their presidents. So why is this one by Park Geun-hye causing such a strong reaction? It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt. Koreans are not being dismayed at the scale of the corruption; they are shocked to see what the scale of the corruption signifies.
Why risk it all for a nobody like Choi Soon-sil?
One of Park’s selling points as the presidential candidate was that she was less likely to be corrupt because she had no family. Her parents–former dictator Park Chung-hee and his wife Yuk Yeong-su–were dead, and she was estranged from her sister and brother. This argument had a modicum of plausibility, since all the previous president’s corruption involved their family in some way. (Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had issues with their sons; Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, their brothers.)
But the lack of family did not stop Park Geun-hye from being corrupt, because she apparently had to give money to Choi Soon-sil. But why did Park Geun-hye, the president, even bother with Choi Soon-sil, a nobody? To answer this question, we must look back into modern Korean history to trace the relationship between Park and Choi.
Choi Tae-min (right) meets with Park Chung-hee (left) and Park Geun-hye (center)
Park Geun-hye met Choi Soon-sil through Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min. The elder Choi, born in 1912, was a pseudo-Christian cult leader. He started his adult life as a policeman and soldier, and at one point he worked at a small newspaper and a soap factory. By 1970s, Choi was fully engaged in the occupation for which he would be known: being a cult leader, claiming to heal people. Choi called himself a pastor, but he never attended a seminary.
Choi Tae-min met Park Geun-hye for the first time in 1975, when Park was 23. Park Geun-hye had just lost her mother, who was assassinated by a North Korean spy. (The spy was aiming for Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, but missed and killed the first lady instead.) Shortly after the assassination, the elder Choi sent several letters to Park Geun-hye, claiming that the soul of Park’s mother visited him, and Park could hear from her mother through him. Park invited Choi Tae-min to the presidential residence, and the elder Choi told her there that Park’s mother did not truly die, but merely moved out of the way to open the path for Park Geun-hye. This was the beginning of the unholy relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi’s family, which included Choi Tae-min’s daughter Soon-sil.
Once the elder Choi won Park Geun-hye’s confidence, he leveraged the relationship to amass a fortune. Choi set up a number of foundations, with Park Geun-hye as the nominal head, and peddled influence. The influence-peddling and bribery became so severe that the dictator Park Chung-hee summoned Choi Tae-min to personally interrogate him. In the interrogation session and thereafter, Park Geun-hye would fiercely defend Choi, her spiritual guide and connection to her dead mother. In a Wikileaks cable from 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the U.S. Ambassador for Korea noted: “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.”
Choi Tae-min’s high times ended on October 26, 1979, when his patron lost her father in another assassination. (Fittingly, Park Geun-hye’s own downfall began around October 26 of this year.) The assassin Kim Jae-gyu, then-head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, said one of the reasons why he decided to assassinate his boss was because of the toxic relationship between Choi Tae-min and Park Geun-hye. Although Park Chung-hee was fully aware of Choi Tae-min’s grafting, the elder Park let it continue for the sake of his daughter. Kim believed that this was another indication that Park Chung-hee was losing his marbles.
For the next decade, Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min were removed from politics. The assassination of Park Chung-hee led to another round of murderous dictatorship, this time by Chun Doo-hwan, then finally democratization in 1987. During that time, Park operated several charitable foundations, which were in reality no more than private slush funds made up of the money that Choi grifted during her father’s reign. Park Geun-hye became so dependent on Choi Tae-min that she would be estranged from her remaining family, her sister Park Geun-ryeong and her brother Park Ji-man. In 1990, Park’s siblings went so far as to petition then-president Roh Tae-woo that their sister be “rescued” from Choi Tae-min’s control.
Choi Tae-min died in 1994, at which point Park Geun-hye’s confidence moved to Choi’s daughter, Soon-sil. Park entered politics in 1997, winning her first election as an Assemblywoman in 1998. She would prove to be a competent politician, earning the nickname “Queen of Elections.” She lost in the presidential primaries to Lee Myung-bak in 2007, but came back strong to win the nomination and eventually the presidency in 2012. Although Park’s relationship with the Choi family briefly became an issue during her two presidential runs, she dismissed them as baseless rumors, claiming that neither Choi Tae-min nor Choi Soon-sil was involved in her works as a politician.