Mystery Letter Haunts Scandal-Hit South Korean Leader

  • Park’s troubles rooted in ties forged after mother’s death
  • Public faith in Park’s integrity unraveling over relationship

South Korean Prosecutors Seek Warrant for Choi Soon-sil

A letter Park Geun-hye received after her mother was killed in 1974 in a botched assassination attempt on her dictator father set in motion a relationship that is transfixing South Korea and imperiling her presidency.

The writer, Choi Tae-min, ran a little-known religious sect. When Park got his letter she invited him to meet, starting an association between the two families that has endured through to her own time in power.

The death of her mother at the hands of North Korean sympathizer Mun Se-gwang led Park to step in as acting first lady to her father Park Chung-hee, who was himself assassinated five years later. But she also took on a role in Choi’s political group known as “Korea Salvation Mission,” attending prayer meetings that drew hundreds of followers condemning North Korea.

Choi Soon-sil arrives at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul on Oct. 31.

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Decades on, fresh questions over Park’s entanglement with Choi Tae-min’s family, including her friendship with his daughter Choi Soon-sil, have set off a furor that has seen the departure of her chief of staff and several top advisers. On Wednesday, Park dumped her prime minister and finance minister, creating a new leadership bench in an effort to placate an opposition questioning her ability to lead Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

The scandal exploded after prosecutors began probing allegations aired in local media that Choi secured unauthorized access to government documents and used her proximity to Park to coax large local companies into donating to her two foundations. The drama threatens to spill over to some of Korea’s biggest conglomerates. With just 16 months left in her single five-year term, it risks Park looking increasingly like a lame duck even if she holds onto power.

‘An Insult’

“People are worried about what influence the off-shoot religion has on the president," said Nigel Callinan, a professor of global studies at Pusan National University in South Korea. "It’s kind of an insult to the Korean people.”

The president’s popularity rating has taken a hit from the scandal, falling to an all-time low. Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Seoul over the weekend to call for her to resign.

Park’s office declined to answer Bloomberg questions on Choi and their friendship. Choi, who returned on Sunday from Germany where she had been for several weeks, sobbed and nearly collapsed as she waded through a scrum of reporters on Monday to be questioned by prosecutors. They have accused her of fraud and violating laws prohibiting a public official from abusing authority, and are seeking court approval for an arrest warrant.

“I committed a sin for which I deserve to die,” local media quoted her as saying, with her voice muffled by shouts from protesters. Calls seeking further comment were not returned by her lawyer, Lee Kyung-jae, who has said previously Choi admitted to “some wrongdoing”.

Policemen block protesters marching towards the presidential house in Seoul on Oct. 29.

Photographer: Lee Ki-tae/EPA

Concerns about the influence of the Choi family stretch back nearly four decades, and were raised even before the murder of Park Chung-hee in 1979 by then-intelligence chief Kim Jae-gyu. Kim told the court during his trial he was frustrated in part with Park’s inability to tear his daughter away from a man his agency viewed as a cult leader. Kim was executed in 1980.

"We are still haunted by that ill relationship with Choi,” Ahn Dong-il, who was a lawyer for Kim, said by phone. “Kim pleaded with Park Chung-hee to pull her out of the relationship, but I guess even a president can’t help his daughter.”

Kim Jung-ryum, who was chief of staff to Park Chung-hee in the 1970s, was worried in turn by Park Geun-hye seeking favors for two companies that donated to Choi’s activities, he wrote in a 1997 memoir.

After her father died, Park left the presidential residence and ran a children’s foundation set up by her mother. She turned its control over to her sister in 1990 after some employees protested at what they called Choi’s interference. In her 2007 autobiography, Park said she resigned because she could not let the foundation be tarnished by “groundless allegations.”

Political Career

Seven years later, Park entered politics by joining the party now known as Saenuri, and was elected a lawmaker in 1998 in the city of Daegu, near where her father was born.

During an unsuccessful campaign for president in 2007, Park said at a debate she was thankful to Choi Tae-min for helping her during “difficult” times. She also told panelists that Choi Soon-sil did not embezzle funds from the children’s foundation Park had headed, responding to allegations aired in local media at the time. Choi once ran a kindergarten affiliated with the foundation.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul wrote a cable in 2007 released by WikiLeaks that Park’s opponents characterized Choi Tae-min as “Korean Rasputin." “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result,” it said.

In 2012, Park was elected South Korea’s first female president by millions of voters frustrated by previous leaders hounded by corruption scandals involving their families.

For an explainer of the scandal rocking South Korea, click here

Choi Soon-sil is several years younger than the 64 year-old president. Her then-husband worked as Park’s chief of staff when the president was a legislator. The couple divorced in 2014 and have a daughter who is a dressage rider.

Park’s actions amid the scandal have added to the intrigue. She acknowledged consulting Choi on “certain documents” for a period following her inauguration, but has yet to address reports that Choi may have held sway over policies like her tough approach to North Korea and trademark “creative economy” plan to help start-ups.

“The scandal seems to have confirmed the public’s worst suspicions about Park as a secretive, untrustworthy politician less concerned with the public interest than in giving favors to friends and their families.” Charles Armstrong, professor of history at Columbia University in New York, said by e-mail. “Whether or not she stays in power to the end of her term, this scandal is likely to make running the government very difficult and will cast a long shadow over her reputation.”

Choi’s father Choi Tae-min died in 1994. In a 1990 interview with a monthly magazine, Choi said he struggled to remember what he wrote to Park after her mother was killed, saying he probably sent condolences and expressed hope for a meeting. Park has never disclosed the contents of the letter.

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