In the week since President Park Geun-hye apologized to the nation for sharing classified state information with her long-time confidant and friend, Choi Soon-sil, a steady stream of revelations has shown what appears to be Choi’s decades-long grip over the president’s life and decisions, from the trivial (what to wear) to the extremely consequential (cabinet appointments, North Korean policy). A weekend rally calling for the president’s ouster numbered in the tens of thousands and protesters promised a continuous vigil in the days to follow. Park’s mass firing of her closest aides on Sunday to counter the charges about Choi’s influence over her appointments did little to restore the public’s faith in her.
After refusing for weeks to return to face the legal charges against her, Choi returned to Korea from Germany on Monday and was promptly detained by prosecutors. At a frenzied press conference, she admitted, “I committed a sin that deserves death.” Feelings were apparently running high, as a man tried to ram his construction vehicle through the gate of the prosecutor’s office to “help her die,” while another bystander threw a tub of excrement at her.
Beyond the $70 million she may have extorted from South Korea’s major corporations to feed the two foundations that she is charged with using for her personal expenses, the heart of the scandal is focused on the extent to which she influenced key appointments and government decisions in the Park administration. The president’s reputation for secrecy, including an unwillingness to give press conferences or rely on any but a handful of close aides, only feeds the notion that Choi was the one pulling the strings behind the president the entire time (along with a secret group of advisers she called the “eight fairies”).
This scandal eerily mirrors the downfall of Park’s father, former president and dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated by his chief of intelligence in part because Choi’s father, the cult leader Choi Tae-min, wielded too much power over Park and his daughter. In any case, the controversy has also revealed unprecedented fault lines between the government and its traditional allies, including Park’s own party, the conservative media, and the prosecutor’s office, all of which have tended to shy away from any criticism of Park. While it is unclear whether the widespread calls for impeachment will lead to an actual unseating, all signs are pointing to Park’s remaining term as a stunningly unpopular lame-duck president.