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Korean Political Turmoil: Where Is “A New Era of Hope”?

*Headnotes: The names are understood as “Last name” “First name”. “Korea”, without any further remarks, will be referring to Republic of Korea, or more commonly known as South Korea.

Not until this time last week did the media begin to shift their coverage to Asia, amid one of the most tumultuous and chaotic US presidential election ever. The turbulence of the political world has not stopped yet. This time though, it shifted to the East. South Korea now is the center of attention, where the incumbent president of South Korea, Ms. Park Geun-Hye, is under immense pressure by the public to resign, surrounded by concerns that state affairs under her presidency have been largely dictated by one of her friend, Choi Soon-sil. The motto, in which Park visualize Korea under her presidency, “A New Era of Hope”, is doomed to fail.

Park Geun-hye

The current president (now referred to as “Park”) had a powerful political background. Her father, Park Chung-hye, was the president of the Third Republic of Korea (current Korea is known as the “Sixth Republic”, after several successful coups d’état attempts targeted at then-leaders with various constitutional reforms). During this politically tempestuous period, multiple assassination attempts were carried out. He was assassinated by one of the member of the National Intelligence Service, after allegations of giving preferential treatments for large corporations (known as “chaebols”) and abuse of power. Her mother was also killed in an earlier assassination attempt which also targeted her father. Following her father’s footsteps, Park Geun-hye entered politics as the legislative member of one county and quickly progressed to the chairwoman of the Grand National Party (GNP) in 2004 and led the party to great success. She later stepped down and rejoined the party in 2011 amid rumors that she would be going for her presidency in 2012. She was inaugurated as President of South Korea in early 2013 after a democratic election process.

Choi Soon-sil/Choi Tae-min

Choi Tae-min (died 1994) was a Christian pastor, who previously followed Buddhism as well. During the the latter stage of his career, he managed to set up a religious group, which combined the practices of shamanism and the teachings of the two religions he practiced before. He was also closely observed by the Korean government (you could find a US Embassy document about him on WikiLeaks) carefully at the time, as he was famously known as a cult leader. During the 1970s, a close acquaintance of Choi Tae-min, Tahk (an expert on cults) was informed by the intelligence agency that Choi Tae-min was classified as a dangerous man.

Choi Soon-sil, his daughter, also labelled as a “shaman”, was the closest child to the current president at that time (now referred as “Choi”), and succeeded father as a secretive adviser to the president.

How did this relationship develop?

After Park’s mother death, Choi Tae-min sent a letter to Park claiming that he was a messenger of the spiritual world. He strongly asserted with Park that whenever she wanted to listen to her mother, it was possible to do it through his supernatural power. After their first meetings, Park completely trusted him and estranged herself from family members, despite efforts of her late father trying to prevent the unhealthy relationship. There were also rumors that the late Choi and Park, during her early years, allegedly spent hours in a closed room for spiritual training. Park’s siblings at the time also expressed their worries towards her political agenda, which might have been largely swayed by Choi’s own personal interest.

How did we end up here?

There were indications that the connection between Park and Choi’s family exposed before the incident. In 2007, a South Korean magazine published a report made by the Korean Intelligence Agency in the 1970s, which claimed that Choi Tae-min had approached Park to offer help. In the president election, which occured in the same year, Park was endorsed as a potential candidate to lead her party GNP. Her opponent, Lee Myung-bak, publicly pronounced her shadow relationship with Choi. However, no one paid attention since the accusations at the time were merely baseless.

All of the media attention started in 2014 when Chung Yoon-hoi, who was married to Choi, was suspected of committing wrongdoings. He was a successful businessman, but was promoted on no basis to be chief of staff of Park when she was a lawmaker. His later interventions to national affairs were found by a policeman, as he later attempted to smug these confidential documents to the public. However, the prosecution towards Chung was unsuccessful, so he was not convicted to any criminal punishment.

Choi’s hidden power were put in critical observation as few investigations were conducted into the financial transparency of her two charitable foundations, Mir and K-sport. It was believed that 80 billion Korean Won (equivalent to 62.5 million euro) were being donated to these two accounts by top companies. Part of the money raised from these two foundations was later transferred to a hidden offshore company in Germany, which was believed to be one of the Choi’s controlled entity. Furthermore, revelations were that the approval by the Ministry of Culture and Sports for the establishment of Mir was conducted in less than a week, while most businesses would take a month. Her daughter, a 2014 Asian Games gold medalist, was also under close investigation, as there were reports indicating that she was received preferential treatment, referring to her admission to an extremely renowned university in Korea. Further allegations suggested that her high school records were questionable and she also got her attendance replaced illegally when she was in middle school. The involvement of Choi’s in national affairs was far beyond politics. One of the most famous entertainment companies in Korea, YG Entertainment (remember “Gangnam Style”?), was also under scrutiny amid accusations towards a potential connection to the Choi’s family.

However, the most important (chain of) findings related to this turmoil was that several weeks ago, JTBC, a Korean television broadcast company, found a tablet PC of Choi (which she intended to get rid of), which contains hundreds of classified documents. They managed to find out that the files on the tablet consist of every level of involvement in Korean political agenda: plans for president speeches, dress codes for formal events, the timing and reactions to North Korea’s happenings, and military confidential materials, during the time when Park was running for the presidency and later when she has already been in office. The disclosure about that many of the edited president’s speeches made by Choi was indeed the biggest revelation: it seems that all of the edited parts were at least indirectly related to the creation of lucrative wealth created for Choi’s family. The extent to which the consequences caused by these corrections of the speech are undetermined, but investigators are currently working on the evidence to release an official report as soon as possible.

Two weeks ago, President Park stepped out into the public, speaking about the incident. She apologized for having had an intimate relationship with Choi, but insisted on the conversations between herself and Choi were merely asking for advice, without acknowledging Choi’s (direct) involvement in state affairs. Choi returned to Korea in the beginning of last week and was held in custody by the police, as an official trial will soon be held.

So, for Korea, what’s next?

Multiple demonstrations and riots were held publically in Korea, under close investigation by the police forces. Last Saturday, a record attendance of 200,000 people gathered at the central area of Seoul to show their displeasure of Park still being a president and calling Park for resignation. Approval ratings of Park plummeted to only 5 percent in the latest poll (from 30 percent before the scandal); while in the southwestern region, statistics showed 0 percent of support for the president. Park also dismissed most of her staff earlier last week, but this tactic proved unhelpful. The leading party is now to be blamed as well for not disclosing its shadow relationship between Park and Choi, having acknowledged the existence of it for decades.

There are only 15 months left on her official term so it is more likely that she would be still holding her position until the end of the term without electing a replacement. Nevertheless, there are potential severe consequences for the political system of Korea. Firstly, the current majority party, GNP, is due to falter after this incident and hence will not receive any kind of support from the people for the next election. Secondly, the accident actually deterred a chance of having a woman in office again in Korea, or at least in the near future – through this coverage Park has shown signs of weakness and unreliability when she was in office. This cultural aspect is actually taken really seriously, especially in a male-dominant society such as South Korea. Thirdly, North Korea, its neighboring country, will be exposed to more confidential information of South Korea because of these revelations and there will evidently some permanent repercussions for the diplomatic relationship between two countries. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, reacted happily to the incident, with a promise of pushing for more military activities to re-ignite tensions across borders.

New discoveries of Choi’s involvement in domestic political matters are constantly updated and broadcast on television so locals can keep posted with new developments. As a result, watching nightly news at 9 has become a national must-do activity of every Korean citizen. Soon enough, the truth will be unveiled and justice will be served for the Koreans.


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