South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye has been sentenced to 24 years in prison and ordered to pay a whopping $17 million in fines after being convicted of bribery, coercion, abuse of power, and other charges.
It’s a fittingly dramatic end to a scandal so strange it sounds like something out of a comic book.
Whereas most politicians fall from grace due to banal things like corruption or marital infidelity, the fall of South Korea’s first female president resulted from her relationship with a shadowy figure from an obscure religious cult that critics have derided as a “shaman fortuneteller” with sinister, Rasputin-like influence over Park.
And the whole case broke open because of — wait for it — the competitive world of horse dancing.
The adviser at the center of the scandal, a 60-year-old woman named Choi Soon-sil, is the daughter of the founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life and a longtime friend of Park.
Choi was indicted on charges of having manipulated the president for personal financial gain, including using her relationship with Park to coerce large companies into donating almost $70 million to two nonprofit foundations Choi runs.
Prosecutors alleged that Choi then siphoned some of that money for personal use — including to pay for equestrian training for her daughter, a gold-medal champion of dressage, or competitive horse dancing.
It just gets weirder from there.
The mystery woman who upended South Korean politics
The revelations about the astonishing degree of power Park apparently gave to Choi, a private citizen with no official government title or security clearance, shocked South Koreans.
Choi reportedly communicated regularly with the president’s staff, provided input on top political appointments, and received presidential briefings, and, by Park’s own admission, was allowed to edit a number of Park’s major policy speeches. She even apparently controlled the president’s wardrobe, dictating which colors to wear on which days.
The two met through Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, back in the mid-1970s. A dubious character with a checkered background and multiple pseudonyms, the elder Choi had by that point established a cult-like Christian sect known as the Church of Eternal Life, calling himself a pastor and claiming he could heal people.
The following account of Park’s long and convoluted relationship with the Choi family comes mostly from the Virginia-based blogger known simply as “TK” (“The Korean”) who runs the well-known politics and culture site Ask a Korean.
In 1974, when Park was only 23, her mother was tragically killed in an assassination attempt on Park’s father, who at the time was South Korea’s third president. Shortly after the assassination, the elder Choi sent several letters to the grieving Park, claiming that the soul of her dead mother had visited him in dreams and that Park could commune with her mother through him.
The vulnerable Park took the bait, and the elder Choi soon became a trusted spiritual guide to the young woman.
Choi quickly went about exploiting his new relationship with Park to line his own pockets, setting up various charity foundations that in practice operated as little more than slush funds. When Park’s father was killed in yet another assassination attempt in 1979 and a new leader swept into power, Park, now an orphan, became almost completely reliant on Choi, helping him run the various foundations he had set up during her father’s reign.
When the elder Choi finally died in 1994, his daughter took over her father’s role as Park’s spiritual guide, caretaker, and trusted confidante. And there she remained throughout Park’s own meteoric political rise — all the way to the Blue House, the presidential mansion.
In one of several emotional public apologies Park issued in the wake of the scandal, the president explained, “Living on my own, I had no one to help me with the many private affairs that needed taking care of, so I turned to Choi Soon-sil, whom I have known a long time, for help.” Park, who has never married, said it was “loneliness” that had driven her to lean on the younger Choi’s friendship and guidance.
But it seems the younger Choi didn’t just inherit her father’s spiritual role in Park’s life — she also inherited his role as a talented grifter, leveraging her power and access to the president to fund the nonprofit foundations under her control, just as her father had done.
The champion horse dancer whose antics broke open the whole scandal
Choi is alleged to have diverted some of those funds for her own personal use, including to pay for equestrian training for her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. And that’s where the whole scandal really broke open: with Chung Yoo-ra, the young gold medal champion of dressage — competitive horse dancing.
As the Korea Herald’s Ock Hyun-ju reports, when Chung was admitted to the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul in 2015, it raised eyebrows among her fellow students — namely, because the administration had evidently allowed her to bring the gold medal she’d won at the 2014 Asian Games to the admissions interview to bolster her application, in violation of the school’s policy.
Her subsequent academic performance and attendance record did nothing to assuage these suspicions, either: Despite not having attended classes, submitted assignments, or sat for exams, she was still marked as present and received top marks in all of her classes for three straight semesters.
“In one case,” Ock writes, “students were given tasks to design their own clothes and turn them in, but Chung only submitted a photo in which she wore branded clothes. Her professor was found to have done the assignment and handed it in for her.”
Students and faculty at the super-competitive women’s private school finally got fed up with all the preferential treatment Chung was getting and in October of this year began holding public demonstrations on campus, eventually pushing the university’s president to resign.
Media coverage of the university scandal quickly began to shift, though, focusing on the much juicier story of Chung’s mother, Choi Soon-sil, and her disturbingly close relationship with the South Korean president, prompting Choi to flee to Germany to escape the increasingly intense media scrutiny.
Then, on October 27, one news outlet hit the jackpot.
The Korean cable TV network JTBC somehow got its hands on what the New York Times described as Choi’s “discarded” tablet computer, which had been left behind in her office — and what it found on there was astonishing. Park’s presidential speeches with Choi's edits marked in red, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings, appointment information for presidential aides, chat messages with presidential aides, the president's vacation schedule, and more were all there, right along with Choi’s selfie in the device’s image gallery.
Choi returned to Seoul two days later, and shortly after, she was detained by the police. She was formally indicted on November 20 on a number of charges, including extortion and abuse of power.
A dramatic end to a dramatic scandal
Public outrage over the level of influence Park had apparently given her unelected personal spiritual adviser sparked weeks of massive public demonstrations in late 2016, some reportedly drawing as many as a million people calling for Park’s resignation. Park’s five-year term was to end in February 2018. Her public approval rating also experienced a precipitous drop, sinking to a whopping 4 percent.
In response, Park was impeached in December 2016 and formally removed from office a few months later.
The New York Times reports that Park didn’t show up in court for her sentencing on Friday. “She has refused to attend any court hearings since October, staying in her solitary prison cell, complaining of poor health and insisting that she is the victim of a political conspiracy,” the Times reports.