Choi's associates tell of her power

Ms Jang, Ms Choi's niece, taking an oath at the parliamentary hearing on the political scandal in Seoul, South Korea, yesterday. Those summoned included Ms Choi's close associates.
Ms Jang, Ms Choi's niece, taking an oath at the parliamentary hearing on the political scandal in Seoul, South Korea, yesterday. Those summoned included Ms Choi's close associates.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Her close ties to S. Korean leader influenced latter's wardrobe, choices for senior posts

SEOUL • Friends and associates of the woman at the heart of a corruption scandal engulfing South Korean President Park Geun Hye told a hearing yesterday her influence extended to everything from the leader's wardrobe to senior appointments.

President Park, who faces an impeachment vote on Friday, has been accused of letting long-time confidante, Ms Choi Soon Sil, meddle in a wide range of state affairs, and of ordering aides to leak confidential documents to Ms Choi, who has no official title or security clearance.

The President is also suspected of colluding with Ms Choi in strong-arming major conglomerates into donating funds to two dubious foundations Ms Choi controlled.

The scandal has sparked mass rallies across South Korea, with hundreds of thousands of protesters calling Ms Park a "puppet" of the Choi family and demanding she resign immediately.

A major parliamentary hearing on the scandal this week summoned the country's most powerful business tycoons, as well as Ms Choi's close associates, including a prominent K-pop video director and a fashion designer.

Mr Cha Eun Taek, who once made videos for Gangnam Style star Psy, said Ms Choi once asked him to recommend potential candidates for culture minister and for a presidential adviser on culture.

The names he put forward to Ms Choi, including one of his uncles, ended up getting the jobs.

"So I thought... 'What kind of person could possibly do something like this?'" Mr Cha told lawmakers, describing Ms Choi's ties with Ms Park as "extremely close".

Mr Cha also said Ms Choi had often sought his written opinions on cultural issues. These were later included word-for-word in some of Ms Park's speeches.

Ms Choi, whose influence over President Park has led to her being described as "Korea's Rasputin", has refused to testify to the investigative parliamentary committee.

Another member of Ms Choi's reported inner circle, a young designer named Ko Young Tae, whose relationship with Ms Choi has been the subject of lurid media gossip, testified to the power Ms Choi appeared to wield over senior administration officials.

He particularly noted her treatment of Kim Chong, a former vice sports minister who is now under arrest on charges of awarding lucrative contracts to Ms Choi and trying to help her meddle in preparations for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

"Choi constantly gave orders to Kim... as if he was her personal assistant," Mr Ko told the televised hearing yesterday.

He also suggested Ms Choi controlled the President's wardrobe choices, saying he provided Ms Choi with about 100 items of clothing and up to 40 bags that he saw Ms Park wearing in public.

At the start of yesterday's hearing, the chair of the parliamentary committee issued orders compelling Ms Choi and members of her family to appear or face possible jail for contempt.

Ms Choi had been slated to answer questions yesterday but refused the summons, citing health reasons and the need to prepare for her pending trial. She is scheduled to appear in court on Dec 13.

But Ms Choi's niece, seen as her close aide, made an appearance and was grilled for allegedly using Ms Choi's power to squeeze money from Samsung.

Samsung is accused of giving 1.6 billion won (S$1.95 million) to a dubious sports foundation controlled by the niece, Ms Jang Si Ho, who was arrested last month for allegedly embezzling some of the funds.

Ms Jang denied all accusations against her, saying she had only followed orders from her powerful aunt to whom she could not say no.

Samsung was the single biggest donor to Ms Choi's foundations, and also sent Ms Choi millions of euros to fund her daughter's equestrian training in Germany, in what critics described as a bid to win policy favours.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Choi's associates tell of her power'. Print Edition | Subscribe