Friendship for over 40 years

Video footage from Internet media outlet Newstapa shows Park Geun Hye and Choi Soon Sil at a university campus in Seoul in June 1979.
Video footage from Internet media outlet Newstapa shows Park Geun Hye and Choi Soon Sil at a university campus in Seoul in June 1979.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

SEOUL • Empress dowager. Female Rasputin. Shaman. Puppeteer. All these terms and more have been used to describe Ms Choi Soon Sil, the mysterious woman accused of manipulating South Korean President Park Geun Hye and meddling in state affairs in a widening political scandal that has gripped the nation.

Ms Choi, 60, is neither the President's aide nor a government official. But Ms Park trusts her so much that she has admitted allowing her friend of over 40 years to edit some of her speeches.

That is not all. Ms Choi, according to reports, also had access to confidential documents and exerted extensive influence in decisions made in the presidential Blue House, from shaping national policies to appointing personnel to choosing the President's wardrobe.

She is said to be Ms Park's spiritual guide, taking over from her late father, Mr Choi Tae Min, a powerful religious cult founder who was a mentor to both Ms Park and her father, the late president Park Chung Hee.

Mr Choi introduced his fifth daughter to Ms Park in the mid-1970s, when Ms Park was acting as First Lady after her mother died in 1974 taking a bullet meant for her husband. Ms Choi claimed to be able to "speak" to Ms Park's late mother.

The two women became close friends after Mr Park's death in 1979 drove his eldest daughter to live in seclusion.

Ms Choi, 60, is neither the President's aide nor a government official. But Ms Park trusts her so much that she has admitted allowing her friend of over 40 years to edit some of her speeches.

Ms Choi reportedly served as Ms Park's personal secretary when she entered politics in 1998, and nursed her back to health after her face was slashed by a man at an election rally in 2006. She reportedly accompanied Ms Park to events and media interviews too.

Ms Choi apparently started keeping a low profile after Ms Park was elected President in 2012. But she reportedly continued to interfere in state affairs and even headed her own team of unofficial presidential advisers called the "eight fairies".

In last October and January this year, Ms Choi started two foundations and allegedly abused her presidential connection to acquire slush funds worth nearly 80 billion won (S$97 million) from conglomerates.

She herself is rich, having inherited her late father's fortune, shared among nine siblings. In 2014 when she ended her second marriage, she declared that she had 36.5 billion won worth of assets, including several properties.

Ms Choi, who has a 20-year-old daughter, left South Korea for Germany in September, when news of the scandal first emerged.

She returned on Sunday and is now being investigated by prosecutors for the scandal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Friendship for over 40 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe