Aides to Choi Soon Sil, woman at heart of South Korean scandal, testify to her power

Choi Soon Sil arrives for questioning at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov 1, 2016.
Choi Soon Sil arrives for questioning at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov 1, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
Kim Ki Choon (centre), former chief of staff for South Korean President Park Geun Hye, answers questions during a parliamentary hearing of the probe in Choi Soon Sil gate at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea on Dec 7, 2016.
Kim Ki Choon (centre), former chief of staff for South Korean President Park Geun Hye, answers questions during a parliamentary hearing of the probe in Choi Soon Sil gate at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea on Dec 7, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL  (AFP) – Friends and associates of the woman at the heart of a corruption scandal engulfing South Korean President Park Geun Hye told a hearing Wednesday (Dec 7) her influence extended over everything from Park’s wardrobe to senior appointments.

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

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

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

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

The names he put forward to Choi ended up getting the jobs.

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

Choi, whose influence over Park has led to her being called “Korea’s Rasputin”, has refused to testify to the investigative parliamentary committee despite warnings from lawmakers that she could be jailed for contempt.

Another member of her inner circle, a young designer named Koh Young Tae whose relationship with Choi has been the subject of lurid media gossip, testified to the power 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 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,” Koh told the televised hearing.

He also suggested Choi had controlled the president’s wardrobe choices, saying he provided Choi with about 100 items of clothing and up to 40 bags that he saw Park wearing in public for years.

The scandal has sparked mass rallies across South Korea, with protestors calling Park a “puppet” of the Choi family and demanding she resign immediately.

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

Choi had been slated to answer questions on Wednesday, but refused the summons, citing health reasons and the need to prepare for her pending trial.