I have to admit: In many ways 2016 has just been a weird and crazy year. Great Britain votes to leave the European Union. Columbia votes against accepting a peace treaty between its government and the FARC which would have ended over five decades of civil war. The result of the US presidential election threatens to upend the post-World War Two world order. Syria ist still plagued by civil war (come on international community, get it together!). The far-right AfD party enters several state parliaments in Germany. Augsburg introduces ground traffic lights so that pedestrians don’t have to look up from their smartphones when crossing the street. Luckily its already November, so surely that will have been all for this year… or not?

In the last week of October South Korea is suddenly plunged into political chaos that has got the whole country in a frenzy. To summarize it very briefly: The Korean government is controlled and corrupted by a pseudo-christian cult hiding behind the scenes. Hold on, what?

Let’s take a deep breath and a step back. We know for sure that President Park Geun-hye (박근혜) is in deep trouble. It was revealed in October that Choi Soon-sil (최순실), a longtime friend and close confidant of the president, has had her finger in the Korean political pie for many years. She supposedly edited many of the president’s speeches and is accused of having had access to important and confidential government documents. In this sense she was the little bird that continuously whispered into Park’s ear. This scandal seemed relatively harmless when it was first made public. It all started when Choi’s daughter was accused of being accepted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University without proper qualification – apparently, the application process was simplified for her. With student protests against this unfair treatment of a “daughter of the privileged upper class” rocking the Ewha campus, one thing led to another, resulting in the discovery of connections between President Park and Choi and her daughter: Park was now accused of having taken advantage of her position to do her friend this favor.

Only in the following days did the full scale of the scandal become apparent, when the intensity and depth of Park’s friendship to Choi was revealed piece by piece. A tablet computer containing several classified government documents and some of Park’s speeches – as well as, appropriately, a selfie of Choi – was found in her office. This confirmed that Choi was involved in various government affairs. Even worse, she appears to also have made decisions concerning the president’s wardrobe at home and on trips abroad, as well as providing her with purses designed by a personal friend – all of low quality. Following the uncovering of the scandal, Park issued an apology during a publicly broadcasted speech and confirmed that she asked Choi for her opinion in several instances, explaining that she only did so in order to be especially careful and thorough. According to Park, these consultations ceased “shortly” after taking office in 2012. However, the documents on Choi’s tablet prove that she was involved in government matters until just a few months ago. She has already been arrested and is currently being investigated by the government.

As an interdisciplinary international relations student I was of course very “excited” to learn that this scandal was not only about culture (cheating your way into university) and politics (shady intrigues within the government), but also about economics: Money was involved, and lots of it. Choi is accused of using her close personal relations to President Park to pressure several large Korean companies (e.g. Samsung) into donating a total of US $69 million to two of her sports foundations. Apparently this money was to be used to financially secure Park’s post-president life, although both Choi and Park deny this. Under Korean law, a president can only serve for one term and therefore not stand for reelection. Thanks to Park’s widespread unpopularity within the population even before this scandal, it even then appeared to be unrealistic for her to continue any political career after she finishes her five-year term. For critics, all of this adds up to a reasonable explanation for wanting to financially secure herself in such an illegitimate manner,

The strangest part of this whole scandal is probably the story behind the relationship between Park and Choi. Her father, Choi Tae-min (최태민), founded a pseudo-christian cult in the 1970s and remained its leader until his death. He called himself a pastor and claimed to be able to heal people. The elder Choi and Park met for the first time in 1975, shortly after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean spy. Choi claimed she had appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to take care of her daughter. From this moment on Choi became a kind of mentor to the much younger Park, who was only 23 at that time. Through Park’s trust in him Choi was able to amass vast fortunes for himself and his family. For many years Choi was a very influential figure in Park’s life. A correspondence between the US ambassador to Korea at that time and the US State Department, released by Wikileaks,  disclosed “rife rumors 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, Park Geun-hye und Park Chung-hee
Choi Tae-min, Park Geun-hye, and Park Chung-hee

Even when her father Park Chung-hee (박정희), the former authoritarian President of Korea, became suspicious of Choi’s influence over his daughter, she supposedly vehemently defended Choi. Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency – as one of the reasons the assassin named the toxic relationship between Choi and Park (daughter) and the fact that her father had done nothing to prevent or limit it. When Choi died in 1994, Park remained close to his daughter – and this relation obviously still remains today. Let’s summarize: President Park Geun-hye is accused of asking a close personal friend with no connection to the government whatsoever and a father that founded a pseudo-christian cult for advice in several important political decisions – alright.

And yet this becomes even more interesting because a trail leads all the way to Germany, namely to Schmitten in the Taunus mountain range. About a year ago, the small hotel “Haus Hallsein” was purchased by Koreans and reopened as the “Widec Taunus Hotel“. Apparently it was supposed to be a “training base for the Korean dressage team in preparation for the Olympic Games in 2020”. A few weeks ago it was closed practically over night; Google now lists it as “permanently closed”. The hotel has since then been revealed as an offshore company belonging to Choi Soon-sil, into which she is supposed to have funnelled large amounts of the money donated by Korean companies.

Tens of thousands of people on Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square demanding President Park's resignation.
Hundreds of thousands of people on Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square demanding President Park’s resignation.

By now the scandal has lead to far-reaching political consequences. President Park has reshuffled her cabinet and dismissed the Prime Minister and Finance Minister. She has allowed the opposition party to appoint a new Prime Minister and has announced to transfer several executive powers to a bipartisan cabinet. Several presidential aides have stepped down; two have been arrested. This weekend in downtown Seoul, several hundreds of thousands of people were protesting and demanding her resignation; some sources speak of over one million protesters from all over the country. Interestingly, the Korean Internet has started to refer to the – in their eyes – relatively quick and straightforward resignation of former German Federal President Christian Wulff (in reality it was a bit more complicated and took over half a year).

As with all political scandals it is important to separate fact and opinion when looking at information. Especially Korean Internet forums are churning out wild conspiracy theories in regard to the scope of Choi’s influence over Park and the Korean government as a whole. It’s even rumored that not the real Choi was arrested, but rather a body double. Or that the investigation into the scandal is only staged to reassure the public. For the Internet, this becomes apparent in comparisons such the following:

Inszenierte Untersuchung?
Images like these that “prove” that the Korean government is faking its investigation into the scandal can be found all over the Internet.

On the left is a photo of a full box carried by a man during a recent investigation in Germany. The box seems to be heavy, since the bottom is sagging under the weight of its contents, and the man is visibly strained. In comparison to this is the photo on the right, taken during the current investigation in Korea: The gentleman seems to be able to carry both boxes out of Choi’s office with ease, in addition to the top one seeming so light that it barely presses down on the bottom one. According to the Internet, the boxes are therefore empty – a definite sign that the government is faking the investigation into the scandal. The amount of truth to these theories is difficult to ascertain; however it is surely not a bad idea to take such rumors with a grain of salt.

Still, these rumors show one definite thing: the Korean public has now lost all faith in its government and law enforcement – even though until today, no democratically elected president has managed to finish their term scandal- or corruption-free, arguing that this isn’t the first time for the public to become upset due to a government scandal. However, in this case it isn’t so much the scandal itself that is so shocking, but rather the utterly irrational reason for it. It would be more understandable if a president is corrupt in order to secure financial benefits for themselves or their family, or to strengthen their position of power. But to do so for a good friend with a suspicious background without profiting themselves? Incomprehensible for many Koreans. And this in turn seems to show them just how much Park depends on Choi. It also embarrassingly reminds some Koreans of stories of ancient Korean kings and queens that let themselves be misguided by shamans and fortune tellers.

Other than wild theories about the scandal, the internet is ripe with many memes that make fun of Park and try to bring some humor into the situation. For example, a scuffle during Choi’s arrest led to her loosing a shoe, which turned out to be by Prada. Basically immediately afterwards a picture was shared online which juxtaposed the image of her shoe with the movie cover of The Devil Wears Prada. Or people wearing paper cutout masks of Choi with a sign around their necks that says “Siri” – in reference to Apple’s personal assistant.

Frau Park, fragen Sie doch einfach Siri!
President Park, why don’t you just ask Siri?

In a second emotional publicly televised address, President Park announced that she would take part in any investigations concerning her without hesitation. She also attempted to explain her behavior: Because she was well aware of the family-related corruption charges of previous presidents, she cut all ties to her siblings in order to avoid similar temptation (Park never married and has no children – although another Internet rumor has it that Choi Tae-min fathered a child that has been living with her in the Blue House, Korea’s executive residence). Instead, the started to confide in Choi Soon-sil concerning personal matters. In reference to the dubious advisor to the last Russian Tsar, Choi has now been likened to a “modern Rasputin” even by foreign media.

To conclude with this topic I’d like to point out that it took me quite some time to write this article (and then to translate it to English). The Korean language Internet (thanks Google Translate) is full of analyses and opinion pieces about this topic. It wasn’t that simple to first rummage through these websites, especially since one does have to be careful in order to keep fact apart from fiction. I tried my best and yet would still like to advise you to do some little research yourself. The New York Times published a nice introduction into the scandal in its early days; I can also recommend this overview at Ask a Korean – although with the latter I’m not too sure on how to assess the objectivity of the blog article. Other than that I’d like to thank you for reading on until the end! A long article about a topic that doesn’t quite seem to have made its way around too much Western media. And my next post will then again be about Taiwan. Until then!

The cover photo shows President Park at her first public apology after the revelation of the scandal.

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