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Friday, 9 December 2016

President Park Geun-hye's Impeachment Special, Part I: Background and About Park Geun-hye's Confidante, Choi Soon-sil

Following six weeks of street protests in downtown Seoul and Korean Republic Nationwide since the anniversary of the assassination of Park Geun-hye's father, Park Chung-hee in October 26th 2016 and an approval rating that plunged to just 4%, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached Friday, December 9th 2016 by the nation’s National Assembly, signaling an ignominious end to a term that had become mired in a corruption scandal.

The impeachment vote required at least 28 of Park’s fellow Saenuri Party lawmakers to cross the aisle to make up the majority two-thirds of the 300-seat legislature. The final vote was 234 to 56 in favor of impeachment. Park is suspended with immediate effect although the vote needs to be ratified by the nation’s Constitutional Court within 180 days to become permanent.

The nation’s Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn who was once removed by Park Geun-hye's government - takes over Park’s responsibilities in the interim, though Park had already offered to resign if lawmakers voted against her. If she does, new elections must be held within 60 days. Crowds of banner-waving protesters greeted the verdict with cheers outside the chamber.

“President Park Geun-hye has not only forgotten her duty as the nation‘s leader and administrative chief but also violated the constitution and other laws concerning her public duties,” said opposition lawmaker Kim Kwan-young while presenting the impeachment bill.

Who the HELL is Choi Soon-sil?
Park is the 64-year-old daughter of former South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee, who is credited with spearheading the East Asian nation’s rapid economic growth of the 1970s and ’80s. She is accused of sharing classified documents with her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil.

Choi Soon-sil had known President Park since the 1970s when her father, Choi Tae-min, was then-president Park Chung-hee's mentor while the family was still grieving from the assassination of then first-lady Yook Young-soo. Choi at that time claimed that the shamanic leader can channel communication to her dead mother. Both have remained friends since, even up to the point when Park Geun-hye became president. Park's imperial manner during her tenure has raised suspicions due to her lack of communication with parts of the government and the press.

Choi, who has no official government position, was revealed to have access to confidential documents and information for the president, and acted as a close confidant for the president. Choi and President Park's senior staff used their influence to extort W77.4 billion (~ $774M) from Korean chaebols – family-owned large business conglomerates – setting up two media and sports-related foundations, the Mir and K-sports foundations. She embezzled money during the process, and it is reported that some of them were used to support her daughter Chung Yoo-ra's dressage activities in Germany. She is also accused of rigging the admissions process at Ewha Womans University to help her daughter get accepted at the university. Ahn Jong-bum, a top presidential aide, was arrested for abusing power and helping Choi; he denied wrongdoing and claims he simply followed presidential orders.

On October 25, 2016, Park Geun-hye publicly acknowledged her close ties with Choi. On October 28, Park dismissed key members of her top office staff and Park's opinion rating dropped to 5%, the lowest ever for a sitting South Korean president. Her approval rating ranged from 1 to 3% for Korean citizens under 60 years of age, while it remained higher at 13% for over 60 years age group. This also prompted President Park to fire members of her cabinet and the prime minister of South Korea in order to redirect the public's criticism. In particular, the sacking of the prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has resulted in a controversy, due to the claim that his firing had been done via a text message.

Money Laundering, falsified admissions of Choi's daughter... wait... WHAT?
Ms. Choi’s previously hidden power over the president suddenly came under intense scrutiny when investigations began into two charitable foundations, Mir and K-Sport, both created in the past one year. In the case of Mir, the Ministry of Culture and Sports approved its establishment overnight; normally it takes a month. The country’s top companies donated to them nearly 80 billion KRW through the Korea Federation of Industries, the leading business lobby.

The problem is that these entities were reportedly controlled by Ms. Choi, whose intimates filled the key positions. Some of the money the foundations raised was funneled to at least one company Ms. Choi owns with her daughter in Germany. (The latest tally from the German media is that Ms. Choi owns 14 ghost companies in that country.) This firm bought a hotel near Frankfurt, conveniently close to where Ms. Choi’s daughter, an equestrian gold medalist at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, was training until recently and owns a house.

Resembling a princess of some faraway despotic kingdom is this twenty-year-old, Chung Yoo-ra. She lost the top spot at a national championship three years ago, and the police investigated the judges for bias. Two Culture and Sports officials, who subsequently looked into the matter but blamed the fracas on both Ms. Chung and the equestrian association that held the event, were demoted. Ms. Chung became a student at a prestigious South Korean women’s university - Ewha Womans University, admitted under questionable circumstances after the university changed its admission criteria, and her attendance record is spotty to say the least. The university president, Choi Kyung-hee resigned on October 20th over the allegations surrounding Ms. Chung.

Early this year, European sources reported that the South Korean electronics giant Samsung even bought a magnificent champion horse, Vitana V, this year for Ms. Chung’s use. Such tidbits of information about the family trickled down to the public in the preceding weeks until the cable TV channel JTBC found Ms. Choi’s tablet computer. In it were President Park’s speeches, received by Ms. Choi before the president officially unveiled them, with edits in red. It also contained other state documents. Naturally, all hell broke loose.

Each day since then has brought new allegations – for they still remain mostly allegations only – about how Blue House secretaries were doing Ms. Choi’s biddings; how many government policies Ms. Choi might have dictated; how many real estate holdings, bought with mysterious sources of funding, Ms. Choi has in and out of South Korea; what associates she placed in positions of power; and how she called the president her “sister” in private conversations with others and went so far as to say “I get to enjoy this much because I have stayed loyal to my sis all the way until now.”

There have been many glaring signs that Ms. Park is no leader in charge. Two years ago a leaked Blue House document blamed Ms. Choi’s husband for running the presidential house like a puppet master. A Japanese newspaper Sankei identified him as the person with whom Ms. Park might have spent seven hours alone, on the fateful day of the Sewol ferry sinking. In response, prosecutors tried the reporter for defamation. Perhaps this was an indication of the president’s sensitivity to the matter. And frankly, the few who spoke out against the power of the Choi-Chung clan over Ms. Park have seemed like a raving lunatic, considering how absurd the charge – that Ms. Park was so utterly in thrall to a single family – sounded.

(To be continued to the next part)