Close ties between Chois and Park

Choi Soon Sil, the woman at the centre of a South Korean political scandal and long-time friend of former president Park Geun Hye, arriving for a court hearing on Jan 16, 2017.
Choi Soon Sil, the woman at the centre of a South Korean political scandal and long-time friend of former president Park Geun Hye, arriving for a court hearing on Jan 16, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • The daughter of a shadowy religious figure, 61-year-old Choi Soon Sil has been at the side of now-ousted South Korean president Park Geun Hye for decades, bound to the politician by her father.

Choi's father Choi Tae Min made the first connection to Park decades ago after Park's mother was assassinated in 1974 in a failed attempt to kill her dictator father Park Chung Hee.

Mr Choi sent the future president a letter claiming he had seen her mother in his dreams.

Mr Choi, 40 years older than Park and the six-times-married founder of a cult-like group, won her trust. His influence grew after Park's father was himself shot dead in 1979 and she became a recluse. A later United States diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks noted widespread rumours that Mr Choi had "complete control over Park's body and soul".

His daughter Choi became Park's close friend, handling numerous aspects of her daily life down to her wardrobe choices. In 1990 Park's sister and brother sent then President Roh Tae Woo a letter, pleading for him to "rescue" their sibling from the Chois. The Choi clan sought to profit from their connection to Park and persuaded her to cut all contact with her siblings, according to her sister Park Geun Ryoung. Mr Choi died in 1994 but Choi inherited his guiding role.

Three years later Park entered politics, winning a seat in Parliament. By the time she was elected president in 2012 and moved into the Blue House, she was relying heavily on Choi for decisions over policy and personnel, according to a probe by prosecutors last year.

Choi had no title or security clearance, and remained largely unknown to the public. But recorded phone conversations released by prosecutors during Park's own trial revealed Choi giving orders regarding policy directives or public relations campaigns at the presidential office. Along the way, prosecutors said, she used her influence over Park to force major Seoul firms, including Samsung, to donate tens of millions of dollars to non-profit foundations which she allegedly used for personal gain.

The ties finally came to light in late 2016 when a Seoul TV station obtained Choi's tablet computer containing many confidential presidential documents, including drafts of Park's speeches.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Close ties between Chois and Park'. Print Edition | Subscribe