With South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it’s tempting to see the South as the normal, chilled out counterweight to their northern neighbours. For the most part, that’s a pretty fair assessment. Yet a quick look at the scandal that brought Moon’s predecessor down reveals a story that is more insane than anything The Interview could come up with. Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president until March 2017, was formally sentenced to 24 years in prison last month. The official charge of corruption doesn’t even begin to cover the stunning breadth and insanity of the scandal.
This complicated story starts in 1974, when Park was only 22. At the time, her father led South Korea under a military dictatorship. He was pretty unpopular with some groups, as dictators tend to be, and multiple assassination attempts were made on his life. One such attempt resulted in the death of his wife. A mate of his to stepped in to help the young Park Geun-hye cope with the death of her mother.
This man was called Choi Tae-min, the leader of a strange South Korean cult called Yongsae-gyo or ‘Church of spirit world’, and the self-declared ‘Future Buddha’. Choi was a bit crazy and he began to tell the young Park that her dead mother was communicating with him from beyond the grave. He then used his influence over her to slowly use her connections as dictator’s daughter to amass a fortune.
“Hey kid I know your mum just died but I can hear her speaking and she says you need to siphon me $1million USD thanks”.
The man was bonkers.
Cool cool – so in summary a shaman is telling the daughter of the dictator that he can hear her dead mum and he’s using that influence to make hella money out of it. Great.
So in 1979, a more successful assassination saw an end to the rule of dictator Park, bringing daughter Park further into the fold of Choi Tae-min (Buddhist cult dude). It is hard to overstate how much influence Choi Tae-min had over Park from this point on. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2007 puts it this way:
“Park has been linked to the late Choi Tae-min, a charismatic pastor. 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.”
When Choi Tae-min died in 1994, Park came under the influence of his daughter, Choi Soon-sil, the key figure in this whole scandal.
If you’re a bit lost, here’s a summary. We had old Park (dictator) and old Choi (Buddhist cult dude). When old Park’s mum and dad get assassinated, old Choi uses this as an opportunity to gain influence over young Park. When old Choi dies, young Choi takes his place and does the same thing. With me so far?
Now none of this craziness was known at the time, so young Park entered the realm of politics in the late 90s. She managed to carve out a successful political career and became the President of South Korea in 2013.
Choi was understandably, quite happy about this. Not only did she use her incredible influence over Park to extort millions of dollars from huge Korean companies, but she also essentially ran the presidency from behind the scenes. This is where things really get absurd. When I say ran the government, I really mean it. Every single day, Choi would receive a big pile of presidential briefings straight from the Blue House (the Korean president’s residence) and go through them with her advisers.
This group of advisers, known as the “eight fairies” (yes, this is actually real and I have no idea where the name comes from) would sit with Park and discuss highly confidential matters on all sorts of topics, raning from high stakes military affairs to trade policy to what the President would be wearing this week. So who made up this eminently qualified and distinguished group of eight? There’s not enough time to go through them all, but my favourite two members are Cha Eun-taek and Ko Young-tae.
Cha Eun-taek was a K-Pop music video director who used his influence to win a range of contracts in the industry. You may know him from the incredible cinematography on display in the music video for PSY’s ‘Hangover’ ft. Snoop Dogg. Yes, Psy from Gangnam Style. Yes, that Snoop Dogg. No, this is not a joke. Yes, this is literally how the government of one of our key strategic and economic allies was being run.
Ko Young-tae is a man with the incredible resume of:
- former Kpop star
- former national fencer, with a 1998 gold medal win in the Asian Games
- CEO of clothing company Villomillo
- gigolo and occasional dogsitter for Choi Soon-sil (important content)
Those working for Park who tried to figure out who this side adviser was were quickly fired. The corruption went on and on to truly insane degrees, with key policy speeches being edited daily by Choi on matters neither she nor her ‘fairies’ had any clue about.
Let’s also not forget that during this time, the only reason Choi had any influence over Park was due to her being the daughter of a Buddhist-cult leader who said she could hear Park’s dead parents speaking from beyond the grave.
So how did this absolute mess unravel? A puppy.
Old mate Ko Young-tae (fencing man who was occasional dogsitter) enjoyed a close relationship with Choi, enough for her to entrust him with the care of her daughter’s puppy. Ko agreed to take care of said puppy, but had also arranged to play a round of golf, so proceeded to leave the puppy at his house and left for his 18 holes. When he returned home, he found Choi in his house, absolutely furious with him for abandoning the poor dog and a massive fight ensued. Much like Choi, I am also angrier about bad dogsitting practices than I am about widespread national corruption scandals.
The subsequent fallout between them led an angry Ko to start documenting the influence that Choi had over Park, culminating in a TV interview where he alleged Choi’s “favourite thing” was to edit Park’s speeches.
Journalists went digging. People were suspicious, but the whole story was yet to emerge. In October, it came to light that Choi’s daughter had gotten special preference to be admitted to a prestigious South Korean university. As the story broke, Choi and her daughter, keen to avoid the spotlight, hightailed to Germany to a property she owned there.
In their haste to get the hell out of Seoul, a Galaxy tablet of Choi’s was left lying about in the office they had just vacated. It contained briefings she had received over the years, speeches with markups, presidential schedules, the whole deal. There was no encryption for the trove of documents, no password, no security whatsoever. To add insult to injury and to make it all the more difficult for Choi to deny ownership, she had conveniently taken some selfies that confirmed it was hers.
It all came crashing down. Park initially tried to deny that the relationship had been in any way policy related, but the evidence was truly damning. In incredible scenes, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the street and demanded her resignation. Not long afterwards, she was impeached and had been on trial until her recent sentencing.
In the end, Park got 24 years and Choi got 20 years in prison. The democratic process pulled through in the end and the corruption clean-up is still ongoing. There is so much more to be said about this story. It gets at the heart of serious corruption in South Korea and a cynicism that has plagued the South’s political environment for decades.
To give you some context about the depth of corruption in South Korea, the President who served before Park, Lee Myung-bak, was recently arrested for bribery and corruption. The President before that, Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide in 2009 while under investigation for corruption. Corruption of this kind isn’t something new to South Koreans.
Yet, in a way it is entirely new. Despite the true cynicism around corruption that is so pervasive in South Korea, it is hard to reconcile the kind of corruption that sits at the heart of this story. While we obviously oppose corruption, we at least understand it – self-interest is something we can make sense of. You might try and steal for yourself, or your family or for god knows what, but corruption that is to your detriment that exists entirely to serve the interests of a psychic’s daughter who claims to be chatting with your dead Mum? You’ve go to be joking. I wish…
Some day it’s going to make for one hell of a book, but for now, we might just think twice when we dismiss the North Koreans as the only crazy ones involved here. It’s worth remembering that it can get pretty wild down South as well.
Cormac Power | @cormac_power
Cormac loves tea.