President Park under fire over clout of close friend

Protesters wearing masks of Ms Choi (far left) and Ms Park at a rally against the President's adviser in Seoul.
Protesters wearing masks of Ms Choi (far left) and Ms Park at a rally against the President's adviser in Seoul.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Scandal feeds into criticism that South Korean leader is disconnected from her people and relies only on a trusted few

SEOUL • South Koreans have been riveted for weeks by a scandal involving their 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 a video of presidential aides kowtowing to her after she apparently gave them orders. She also apparently had an advance copy of the President's itinerary for an overseas trip, the TV station said.

President Park made an unusual apology on Tuesday in a nationally televised address in which she said she consulted Ms Choi on "certain documents".

The 64-year-old leader has long been hounded by allegations that she allowed the Choi family to take advantage of her high profile to extract money from businesses - claims she denied in her address.

As Ms Park nears her last year in office, the scandal has 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 longstanding 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, Mr Choi Tae Min, whose relationship with Ms Park has long been the subject of lurid rumours. The late Mr Choi was often compared to Rasputin here, and now critics say his daughter is playing the same role.

Mr Choi 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, Mr Choi initially approached Ms Park by telling her that her mother had appeared in his dreams, asking him to help her.

He became a mentor to Ms Park, helping her to run a pro-government volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind. His daughter Choi Soon Sil, who is four years younger than Ms Park, became a youth leader in that group.

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

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

Mr Choi, who died in 1994, was never charged with any crime in connection with corruption 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 Mr Choi "had complete control over Ms 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, an accusation she has denied.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'President Park under fire over clout of close friend'. Print Edition | Subscribe