South Korea is hoping for answers Monday about its biggest scandal in years.
At the center is Choi Soon-sil, a cult leader’s daughter with a decades-long connection to President Park Geun-hye. Media speculation claims that Choi, who has no official ties to the administration, may have had a major role in government affairs by pulling strings from the shadows while exploiting her relationship with Park for money and favors.
The extent of Choi’s influence isn’t clear yet, and some claims come from unconfirmed media reports. The scandal exploded last week when Park, in a surprise public announcement, acknowledged receiving help from Choi on some of her presidential speeches. She has fired some of her top aides to try to contain the fallout as thousands of people have protested in the streets and some lawmakers and the public have called for her resignation or impeachment.
Still, many South Koreans believe there is much more to the story than Park has acknowledged, and the frenzy surrounding the scandal threatens her presidency.
Choi, 60, returned home Sunday from seclusion in Germany, and is scheduled to be interviewed by prosecutors in the case Monday. It is unclear if there will be any details revealed from their meeting.
Investigators are trying to determine the scope of access Choi had and whether she was given sensitive presidential documents. They have raided the homes of some officials in the presidential Blue House as part of the investigation.
Choi’s attorney, Lee Kyung-jae, told reporters that Choi “apologizes deeply for causing the people humiliation and despair.”
Reports allege that Choi used her links to Park to pressure businesses to contribute millions of dollars to two public foundations and then used the money for herself. The president of Ewha Womans University has also resigned amid protests over allegations that Choi used her connections to Park to get her daughter into the elite school and then secure special academic treatment.
Choi has been close to Park since Choi’s father, the leader of a religious cult, attached himself to Park by reportedly convincing her that he could communicate with her assassinated mother. The man who later murdered Park’s dictator father, President Park Chung-hee, is said to have claimed that he staged his attack in part because Park Chung-hee wouldn’t keep Choi’s father away from the young Park Geun-hye.
South Korea has only had full democracy since the late 1980s, when it shook off decades of military dictatorship. Political and business corruption remains widespread, but this scandal has struck a chord in a way that previous ones have not.
Part of it has to do with Park Geun-hye and her past, which is deeply entwined with South Korea’s recent, tumultuous history. The legacy of her father is still deeply divisive. Supporters see him as saving South Korea from poverty and irrelevance by building up the economy from the rubble of the Korean War. Opponents say that the economic development came at the expense of massive human rights abuse, including the torture and death of dissidents.
Elected in 2012, Park has been accused by critics of governing in an imperial manner, relying only on a few longtime confidantes and limiting her interaction with the press, the public and even parts of the government.
Even so, Park’s close confidantes were assumed by most South Koreans to be in the government. That she may have been outsourcing crucial decisions to someone outside of government, and someone connected with a murky, lurid backstory, has incensed many. Nearly 10,000 people took to the streets in protest over the weekend.
To try to contain public anger, Park has reshuffled her aides, appointing a new senior secretary for civil affairs and new chief secretary for public affairs. She also accepted resignations from several officials in her inner circle; one of those, an aide of Park for nearly two decades, allegedly has links to the scandal.