During the recent election campaigns a friend, depressed and disheartened, sighed, “What a mess we have in America!”
“This is nothing,” I replied. “In South Korea, the president is in hiding. The cabinet is paralyzed. Political chaos is the order of the day. The whole nation is coming unglued.”
After 32 years of harsh military dictatorship launched by Park Chung-hee, a general turned politician, South Koreans earned freedom and democracy in 1993. In 2013, voters elected Miss Park Geun-hye, a daughter of the general, as the 18th president of the republic. Her father’s spectacular success during the 1980s and the ’90s in the modernization of Korea catapulted her politically at a time when the country’s sagging economy was calling for another Park Chung-hee.
Now President Park Geun-hye, Korea’s first female leader since Queen Jinseong of the ninth century, is fighting for her political life and perhaps for freedom from prison. Close friends and officials have been indicted for bribery, extortion or abuse of power. Most of her political supporters have turned their backs on her. Demonstrators have demanded Park’s resignation or impeachment. All the leaders of opposition parties, who had lost in the last presidential election, are assaulting Park with unbridled temerity, demanding that she resign.
Park’s crisis began with a revelation that she had been secretly guided and advised by a long-time friend, Choi Soon-shil, on vital state affairs, including those of national security concerns. Choi Soon-shil is a common citizen with no official connection to the Seoul government.
This revelation was only the tip of an iceberg. Reporters discovered that Choi Soon-shil, using her friendship with President Park, had created a vast financial empire with hundreds of millions of dollars extracted from various corporations including Samsung, Hyundai and LG. Furthermore, through her secret network she controlled Park’s presidency, especially in the appointment of key government officials.
How could all this happen?
Most Koreans thought that Miss Park Geun-hye was tough, intelligent and politically astute. After graduating from prestigious universities in Korea and France, she was elected to the National Assembly for four terms as a member of the conservative-leaning Grand National Party, and was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee in 2012.
Like every human being, Park had a weak moment in her life. She was 22 years old when her mother was assassinated in 1974. Miss Park became despondent and emotionally vulnerable. At that moment, a charming but insidiously clever shamanistic cult leader, Choi Tae-min, approached her, claiming to be her deceased mother’s messenger, saying, “Your mother has not died. … . Whenever you wish to speak with your mother you can do so through me.” He even spoke a few words in her mother’s voice, impersonating her.
Miss Park was mesmerized. She and Choi Tae-min became inseparable. Choi Tae-min became her “protector,” and she became his “defender.” Exploiting his connection, Choi Tae-min accumulated wealth and political power. Some in the government were alarmed, calling Choi Tae-min “the Rasputin of Korea.”
Kim Jae-kyu, then the Korean CIA chief, urged President Park Chung-hee, Miss Park’s father, to break up the relationship. Unwilling to hurt his daughter, he hesitated. In 1979, Kim shot Park Chung-hee to death. During his trial he gave Park’s failure to eliminate the shaman’s influence upon Miss Park as one of his reasons for the assassination.
When Choi Tae-min died in 1994 he willed his shaman power to his 38-year old daughter, Choi Soon-shil, the woman at the center of the current crisis in Seoul. Like her father, Choi Soon-shil has held Park Geun-hye under her spell, controlling her for more than two decades as a shadowy underground power.
These revelations have roused the wrath of the nation against the Choi family for their greed and abusive manipulation, against President Park for allowing it, and against the entire presidential staff for its failure to intercede in the scandalous affair.
President Park has appeared before the nation twice, apologizing for the problems that Choi Soon-shil has caused, but has denied personal involvement in the Choi family’s misdeeds.
In the meantime, Korea’s Central Prosecutor’s Office has decided to formally investigate the Park-Choi relationship, now called “the Park-Choi Gate.” The opposition parties in the National Assembly, constituting the majority, have decided to impeach the president, a long and complicated path.
Writing about her in a guest viewpoint for The Register-Guard four years ago, I stated, “The election of Park Geun-hye, a 60-year old unmarried woman, as Korea’s 18th president, would be epochal, symbolizing the triumph of Korean women long oppressed.” Park-Choi Gate is just another example of how precarious it is to predict the future, especially that of a politician.
Song Nai Rhee is academic vice president and dean emeritus of Northwest Christian University and courtesy research associate in the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon.