South Korea's presidential office explains Viagra purchase in bizarre turn of political scandal

South Korean President Park Geun Hye delivers her speech during a plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul on Feb 16, 2016.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye delivers her speech during a plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul on Feb 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - A scandal over South Korean President Park Geun Hye's shadowy confidante took an even more bizarre turn on Wednesday (Nov 23) when Ms Park's office was forced to explain a mass purchase of Viagra.

The revelations about Ms Park's decades-long ties with close friend Choi Soon Sil and with Choi's father - the late founder of a cult-like religious group - have sparked huge media interest in the president's personal life.

On Tuesday, an opposition party lawmaker revealed that Ms Park's office last year bought hundreds of pills which can treat erectile dysfunction, including Viagra and the generic version of the drug. The presidential Blue House bought 364 pills in December, including 60 blue Viagra pills and the rest a generic version of the drug, according to the Democratic Party MP, Mr Kim Sang Hee.

As the revelation sparked a media frenzy, Ms Park's spokesman said the drug was purchased to ease possible mountain sickness during her visit in May to high-altitude African nations including Ethiopia.

While normally associated with erectile dysfunction, Viagra has been reported as helpful in treating high-altitude pulmonary edema, or altitude sickness.

Viagra became the most searched keyword among South Koreans on the country’s main online news portals following the news, which was initially reported by an opposition Democratic Party member of parliament.

"We bought it for the trip but did not use it," Mr Jung Youn Kuk told reporters, adding that the drug is known to be effective in treating altitude sickness.

Ms Park has never married and has no known partner.

Her office in recent years also bought hundreds of injectable doses of human placenta extract and vitamin shots - commonly used for detoxification and anti-ageing treatment.

Mr Jung said the doses were bought for workers at the presidential office including Ms Park's bodyguards.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Ms Park also had various injections prescribed for herself using Choi's name at private clinics, without the knowledge of the official presidential medical staff.

In a scandal which has engulfed the presidency, Ms Park and Choi are accused of colluding to coerce local firms to donate tens of millions of dollars to dubious non-profit foundations controlled by Choi.

Choi allegedly used some of the money for personal gain. Ms Park is also accused of letting Choi meddle in state affairs to the extent of nominating top officials and editing her speeches.

Ms Park faces a criminal probe by prosecutors and a growing push for her impeachment. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to call for her resignation.

Last week, the starlet of a TV soap became the most talked-about celebrity in South Korea when a TV channel revealed Ms Park once used her name as a pseudonym at a beauty and detox clinic.

Mr Kim said data from the country’s public health insurance review service showed Ms Park’s office also bought injections widely used in cosmetic and anti-aging treatments.

The Blue House said the purchase of injections was intended for the health of the office’s employees, recommended by medical staff