Friendship between daughter of 'South Korea's Rasputin', President Park has many crying foul

Protestors wearing masks of South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) and her confidante Choi Soon Sil during a rally in Seoul on Oct 27, 2016.
Protestors wearing masks of South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) and her confidante Choi Soon Sil during a rally in Seoul on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Koreans have been riveted for weeks by a scandal involving the president and a shadowy adviser accused of being a "shaman fortune-teller" by opposition politicians.

The elusive figure, Ms Choi Soon Sil, is a private citizen with no security clearance, yet she had remarkable influence over President Park Geun Hye: She was allowed to edit some of Ms Park's most important speeches.

The news channel Chosun showed video of presidential aides kowtowing to her after she apparently gave them orders. She apparently had an advance copy of the president's itinerary for an overseas trip, the TV station said.

She even had power over the president's wardrobe, overseeing the design of her dresses and telling her what colours to wear on certain days.

These may not seem like the makings of a major scandal. But as Ms Park nears her last year in office, the revelations have sent her polling numbers to new lows, and a prominent member of her party has even called on her to resign, while some South Koreans want her impeached.

In part, the accusations have resonated because they feed into long-standing criticism that the president is a disconnected leader who relies only on a trusted few.

But for most South Koreans, the real drama is that Ms Choi is the daughter of a religious figure whose relationship with Park has long been the subject of lurid rumours. The figure, Choi Tae Min, was often compared to Rasputin here, and now critics say his daughter is playing the same role.

Choi Tae Min was the founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life. He befriended Ms Park, 40 years his junior, soon after her mother was assassinated in 1974. According to a report by the Korean intelligence agency from the 1970s that was published by a South Korean news magazine in 2007, Choi initially approached Ms Park by telling her that her mother had appeared in his dreams, asking him to help her.

Choi Tae Min was a former police officer who had also been a Buddhist monk and a convert to Roman Catholicism. (He also used seven different names and was married six times by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 82).

He became a mentor to Ms Park, helping her run a pro-government volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind. Ms Choi Soon Sil became a youth leader in that group.

According to a report by the KCIA, as the country's intelligence agency was then called, Choi Tae Min was a "pseudo pastor" who had used his connection to Ms Park to secure bribes.

Ms Park's father, Park Chung Hee, the former military dictator, was assassinated in 1979 by Kim Jae Gyu, the director of the KCIA. Kim told a court that one of the reasons he killed Park Chung Hee was what he called the president's failure to stop Choi's corrupt activities and keep him away from his daughter.

Ms Park Geun Hye has said that her father once personally questioned her and Choi about the accusations of corruption but found no wrongdoing. Choi was never charged with a crime in connection with the allegations; in a newspaper interview in 2007, Ms Park called him a patriot and said she was grateful for his counsel and comfort during "difficult times."

But gossip about their relationship - vehemently denied by Ms Park - has haunted her ever since. In a 2007 diplomatic cable made public through WikiLeaks, the US Embassy in Seoul reported rumours that Choi "had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result".

One such tale held that Ms Park, who has never married, had his child. (She has denied that.)

In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday (Oct 25), Ms Park acknowledged that she had let Ms Choi Soon Sil edit some of her most important speeches.

"I deeply apologise to the people," Ms Park said. She described Ms Choi Soon Sil as an old friend who had stood by her through painful times, including the years after the assassinations of her mother and father.

On Wednesday (Oct 26), prosecutors raided homes belonging to Ms Choi and some of her associates, as well as the offices of two foundations she controls, in connection with allegations that she had used her ties with Ms Park to pressure businesses into donating US$69 million (S$96.26 million) to the foundations.

Ms Choi Soon Sil, who has not been charged with a crime, had travelled to Germany, where she told a South Korean journalist that she was innocent but that she would not come home to face investigators.

When local news media first reported allegations that Ms Choi had edited the president's speeches, Ms Park's office dismissed them as "nonsense".

But those denials crumbled this week, after the cable channel JTBC reported that it had obtained a discarded tablet computer once owned by Ms Choi.

Files discovered there included drafts of 44 speeches and other statements that Ms Park had given from 2012 to 2014, as a presidential candidate and later as president. The computer's log showed that Ms Choi had received them hours or days before Ms Park delivered the speeches. Many passages were marked in red.

Among the speeches was one that Ms Park delivered in Dresden, Germany, in 2014. Widely billed as one of her most important policy statements, it set out her vision for eventual reunification with North Korea.

It is not clear how extensive Ms Choi's changes to Ms Park's speeches were. Ms Park said in her address on Tuesday that Ms Choi had offered "personal opinions and thoughts" and helped with "phrasing and other things".

Ms Choi's close relationship with the president has long been suspected, as people close to her have worked in Ms Park's administration, including the presidential Blue House.

She and her ex-husband, who worked as Ms Park's chief of staff when she was a lawmaker, have been accused in the past of improperly profiting from their influence, allegations that Ms Park dismissed as "slander" and attempts to "disrupt the national order".

Officials who investigated the allegations were fired. But none of those developments raised the kind of furore seen in recent weeks.

Barely a day has passed without someone accusing Ms Choi of influence peddling, greed or simply arrogance. Last week, the president of one of South Korea's leading universities, Ewha Womans University in Seoul, resigned amid accusations that the school had given Ms Choi's daughter, a student there, favourable treatment.

This week, a daily newspaper, Hankyoreh, quoted a former employee of one of Ms Choi's foundations, Mr Lee Seong Han, as saying that copies of Blue House reports written for Ms Park had been brought to Ms Choi for review on a daily basis by a presidential aide.

Mr Lee said that Ms Choi called Ms Park "sister" and had her own teams of advisers who meddled in important government decisions, including the appointment of Cabinet ministers and the closing of the Kaesong industrial park, a joint project of North and South Korea, after the North conducted a nuclear test in January.

"Ms Choi effectively told the president to do this and do that," the newspaper quoted Mr Lee as saying. "There was nothing the president could decide alone."

Ms Park's office did not comment on the report.