President Park Geun-hye is deep trouble. The stories have been out for a few days now, and even the English-language papers have caught on. Park’s confidant has been running a massive slush fund, as she extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations. The confidant was receiving confidential policy briefings and draft presidential speeches–all on a totally unencrypted computer. The confidant rigged the college admission process so that her daughter, not known to be sharpest tool in the shed, would be admitted into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. That last bit turned out to be the first step toward the president’s ruin, as Ewha students’ protest over that preferential treatment developed into the larger investigation about the relationship between Park and her confidant, Choi Soon-sil.
But the English language coverage of this scandal is missing something. The newspapers do have most of the facts, which they recount diligently. But they fail to fully account for the Korean public’s stunned disbelief. Although the scale of the corruption here is significant, Koreans have seen much, much worse. Not long ago, Korean people have seen Chun Doo-hwan, the former president/dictator, made off with nearly $1 billion, and this was back in the mid-1980s when the money was worth more than $4 billion in today’s dollars. Even the democratically elected presidents of Korea–every single one of them–suffered from corruption charges. Lee Myung-bak, the immediate predecessor to Park, saw his older brother (himself a National Assemblyman) go to prison over bribery. Lee’s controversial Four Rivers Project, which cost nearly $20 billion, was widely seen as a massive graft project to push government funding to his cronies who were operating construction companies.
For better or worse (mostly worse,) Korean people have come to expect corruption from their presidents. So why is this one by Park Geun-hye causing such a strong reaction? It is not because Korean people discovered that Park was corrupt; it is because they discovered Park was irrationally corrupt. Koreans are not being dismayed at the scale of the corruption; they are shocked to see what the scale of the corruption signifies.
Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal revolves around a central question: why would the president risk her administration for Choi Soon-sil? In fact, one of Park’s selling points as the presidential candidate was that she was less likely to be corrupt because she had no family. Her parents–former dictator Park Chung-hee and his wife Yuk Yeong-su–were dead, and she was estranged from her sister and brother. This argument had a modicum of plausibility, since all the previous president’s corruption involved their family in some way. (Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had issues with their sons; Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, their brothers.)
But the lack of family did not stop Park Geun-hye from being corrupt, because she apparently had to give money to Choi Soon-sil. But why did Park Geun-hye, the president, even bother with Choi Soon-sil, a nobody? To answer this question, we must look back into modern Korean history to trace the relationship between Park and Choi.
Park Geun-hye met Choi Soon-sil through Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min. The elder Choi, born in 1912, was a pseudo-Christian cult leader. He started his adult life as a policeman and soldier, and at one point he worked at a small newspaper and a soap factory. By 1970s, Choi was fully engaged in the occupation for which he would be known: being a cult leader, claiming to heal people. Choi called himself a pastor, but he never attended a seminary.
Choi Tae-min met Park Geun-hye for the first time in 1975, when Park was 23. Park Geun-hye had just lost her mother, who was assassinated by a North Korean spy. (The spy was aiming for Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, but missed and killed the first lady instead.) Shortly after the assassination, the elder Choi sent several letters to Park Geun-hye, claiming that the soul of Park’s mother visited him, and Park could hear from her mother through him. Park invited Choi Tae-min to the presidential residence, and the elder Choi told her there that Park’s mother did not truly die, but merely moved out of the way to open the path for Park Geun-hye. This was the beginning of the unholy relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi’s family, which included Choi Tae-min’s daughter Soon-sil.
Once the elder Choi won Park Geun-hye’s confidence, he leveraged the relationship to amass a fortune. Choi set up a number of foundations, with Park Geun-hye as the nominal head, and peddled influence. The influence-peddling and bribery became so severe that the dictator Park Chung-hee summoned Choi Tae-min to personally interrogate him. In the interrogation session and thereafter, Park Geun-hye would fiercely defend Choi, her spiritual guide and connection to her dead mother. In a Wikileaks cable from 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the U.S. Ambassador for Korea noted: “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.”
Choi Tae-min’s high times ended on October 26, 1979, when his patron lost her father in another assassination. (Fittingly, Park Geun-hye’s own downfall began around October 26 of this year.) The assassin Kim Jae-gyu, then-head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, said one of the reasons why he decided to assassinate his boss was because of the toxic relationship between Choi Tae-min and Park Geun-hye. Although Park Chung-hee was fully aware of Choi Tae-min’s grafting, the elder Park let it continue for the sake of his daughter. Kim believed that this was another indication that Park Chung-hee was losing his marbles.
For the next decade, Park Geun-hye and Choi Tae-min were removed from politics. The assassination of Park Chung-hee led to another round of murderous dictatorship, this time by Chun Doo-hwan, then finally democratization in 1987. During that time, Park operated several charitable foundations, which were in reality no more than private slush funds made up of the money that Choi grifted during her father’s reign. Park Geun-hye became so dependent on Choi Tae-min that she would be estranged from her remaining family, her sister Park Geun-ryeong and her brother Park Ji-man. In 1990, Park’s siblings went so far as to petition then-president Roh Tae-woo that their sister be “rescued” from Choi Tae-min’s control.
Choi Tae-min died in 1994, at which point Park Geun-hye’s confidence moved to Choi’s daughter, Soon-sil. Park entered politics in 1997, winning her first election as an Assemblywoman in 1998. She would prove to be a competent politician, earning the nickname “Queen of Elections.” She lost in the presidential primaries to Lee Myung-bak in 2007, but came back strong to win the nomination and eventually the presidency in 2012. Although Park’s relationship with the Choi family briefly became an issue during her two presidential runs, she dismissed them as baseless rumors, claiming that neither Choi Tae-min nor Choi Soon-sil was involved in her works as a politician.
As it turned out, Choi Soon-sil owned Park Geun-hye just as much as her father did. Peddling the presidential influence, Choi extorted tens of millions of dollars from Korea’s largest corporations. When they found a small and profitable company, Choi’s cronies would straight-up steal it, threatening the owner of the company with the company’s destruction and personal harm. More importantly, Choi effectively controlled the presidential power. Every day, Choi would receive a huge stack of policy briefs from the presidential residence to discuss with her inner circle–an illustrious group that included Choi’s gigolo (no, really) and a K-pop music video director (I’m serious.) Choi would receive ultra-confidential information detailing secret meetings between South and North Korean military authorities. Choi would receive in advance the budget proposal of more than $150 million for the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, and distributed them to her friends’ projects. Choi went around saying North Korea would collapse by 2017 according to the spirits that spoke to her, and the Park Geun-hey administration may have set its North Korea policy based on this claim.
For years, Park’s aides complained about the mysterious off-line person to whom the president would send her draft speeches–when the drafts returned, the professionally written speeches were turned into gibberish. We now know that one of Choi Soon-sil’s favorite activities was to give comments on the presidential speeches. Even the famous Dresden speech, in which Park Geun-hye outlined her administration’s North Korea policy, had a number of markups from Choi Soon-sil. The aides who dug too deep into the relationship between Park and Choi were dismissed and replaced with those close to Choi, to a point that Choi’s personal trainer became a presidential aide. No, really. I wish I were joking.
It is entirely fitting that this sordid affair began unraveling because of a preferential treatment that Choi’s daughter received in her college admission. If there is one thing that Koreans cared more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree. As the heat rose against Choi and her daughter, they hightailed to Germany where they owned a horse farm.
The major breakthrough occurred on October 24, when a cable TV network JTBC discovered a Galaxy Tab belonging to Choi Soon-sil in the office that she abandoned. The tablet was the Pandora’s Box–it had the presidential speeches with Choi’s markups, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings, appointment information for presidential aides, chat messages with presidential aides, the president’s vacation schedule, draft designs for commemorative stamps featuring the president, and much, much more. The discovery of the tablet was worthy of “World’s Dumbest Criminals”–the tablet was simply left behind in Choi’s office with no encryption, and the files were available for anyone to open. And just in case Choi Soon-sil denied ownership of the tablet, its image gallery contained her selfie.
The next day, the president attempted to stem the tide by issuing a public apology, in which she said Choi was someone who “helped during [her] difficult past.” Although Park admitted that Choi had reviewed the draft speeches, she said Choi only conveyed her personal impressions, and at any rate stopped shortly after her presidential office was formed. The ensuing tsunami of revelations showed immediately that the president was lying; one of Choi’s cronies said Choi was receiving presidential briefing as recently as earlier this year. The president’s approval rating plummeted to around 17 percent, with more than 40 percent of the respondents demanding resignation or impeachment. Even conservative newspapers like Chosun Ilbo, which has been reliably in Park’s corner throughout her administration, has issued daily editorials demanding the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet to resign.
Meanwhile, Korean people’s collective heads exploded. As discussed earlier, it takes quite a bit for Korean politics to shock the Korean people. Having survived a particular tumultuous modern democratic history, Korean people may be the world’s most cynical consumers of politics. But this. Even the most cynical Koreans were not ready for this.
On some level, there is a tiny bit of perverse relief, as all the bizarre actions of Park Geun-hye administration suddenly began to make sense. Why did the president only hold just three press conferences in the first four years of her administration? Why does the president always speak in convoluted sentences that make no sense? Why did the president fly out of handle and sued a Japanese journalist who claimed that she was with Choi Soon-sil’s husband while the ferry Sewol was sinking in 2014, drowning 300 school children? Why did the ruling party randomly host a shamanistic ritual in the halls of the National Assembly? Ohhhh, the relief went. Now it all makes sense.
But this brief relief soon gave way to the terrifying realization: actually, it does not make sense. None of this makes any sense.
In an ordinary case of political corruption, the politician is in it for himself. At most, the politician is doing it for his family, or other rich people who may end up helping him later. Obviously, corruption is bad. But this type of self-interested corruption at least gives some measure of predictability. We all know what self-interest looks like. Even though we would prefer that our politicians are not corrupt, at least we know how corrupt politicians behave.
But not with Park Geun-hye. Her corruption was not self-interested at all. If anything, her corruption was self-sacrificing in favor of Choi Soon-sil. Among the numerous revelations, I personally found this the most pathetic: Park Geun-hye gave Choi a sizable budget to purchase the presidential wardrobe, and Choi embezzled most of it. Instead of purchasing the clothes that befitted a head of state, Choi outfitted Park Geun-hye with crappy clothes that she had her cronies made with subpar material. There is a video of Choi’s staff smoking and drinking while eating fried chicken, right next to the suit meant for Park Geun-hye. At one point, one of the staffs handled the suit without even wiping chicken grease from his hands, while breathing smoke onto the clothes. Park Geun-hye would wear this suit on her presidential visit with Xi Jinping. For accessories, Choi gave Park the cheap leather purses and clutches that her gigolo designed. This could not have possibly escaped Park’s notice. Even assuming the unlikely possibility Park Geun-hye might not have had the discernment to know firsthand (unlikely because she grew up in the lap of luxury,) the obvious cheapness of Park’s clothes and bags even made the news. Yet nothing came of it. Choi Soon-sil dressed Park Geun-hye liked an unwanted doll, and Park, the president of the country, did not care.
Even in her apology, Park Geun-hye showed that she still might be under Choi Soon-sil’s hold. What would a self-interested politician would do, if the corruption of one of his cronies was revealed? The politician would sell the crony down the river, denying up and down that he ever knew or interacted with the crony. Such denial would be cowardly and dishonest, but at least it is predictable. But not with Park Geun-hye. She stood in front of the whole country and admitted that Choi Soon-sil fixed her speeches. Instead of cutting ties with her, Park reaffirmed that Choi was an old friend who helped her during difficult times.
This is utterly irrational. Rational people can expect that a corrupt politician may steal money for himself. They can even expect that he may steal for his family. But no one can expect that a corrupt politician would steal money for a daughter of a fucking psychic who claimed to speak with her dead mother. No one, not even the most cynical Korean, expects that the president would refuse to cut ties with Choi Soon-sil, a woman with no discernible talent other than manipulating the president and humiliating her in the process. Koreans may expect that the president would be corrupt, but they never could have expected that the president might be feeble in her mind.
In the Tyson Zone
Sports columnist Bill Simmons coined the term “Tyson Zone,” in which nothing you hear about a particular celebrity can possibly surprise you. Did you hear that Mike Tyson urinated on a police officer? Of course he did! Did you hear that Mike Tyson is attempting to breed unicorns? Of course he is! Given what you already know about Mike Tyson, none you hear about Mike Tyson could possibly surprise you.
With Choi Soon-sil-gate, Park Geun-hye put the entire country into the Tyson Zone. Every insane rumor about the president–the kind that you would see from some remote corner of the internet and laugh off–is now fair game. For years, there have been rumors that the name of Park’s political party, the Saenuri Party, is a code name for a cult named shincheonji. Well, why not? We already know that Choi Soon-sil was the one who actually produced Park’s inauguration, which featured numerous little multi-colored bags that are used for shamanistic rituals. Would it really surprise you Park Geun-hye named her party after a cult? Did you hear that Choi Soon-sil may have had a hidden son who worked at the presidential residence? Well, why not? We already know Choi made her personal trainer into a presidential aide–what’s another hidden son?
This much sounds like a joke, but it can easily take a terrifying turn. There has been much speculation about the “missing seven hours,” where the president’s whereabouts were completely unknown for seven hours in 2014 during the Sewol ferry disaster. Rumors are now running rampant that Park Geun-hye was attending a memorial shamanistic ritual for Choi Tae-min, who passed away 20 years on the day of the ferry disaster. The more lurid version of the rumor says that Park’s government actually caused the Sewol sinking, to offer human sacrifice for the dead cult leader. As ridiculous as these rumors are, Park Geun-hye’s behavior forces even reasonable people to think, maybe.
Even the way forward is not entirely clear. Politically, Park Geun-hye is finished, although it is unlikely that she would resign or be impeached. She would not resign because she fundamentally lacks the capacity to assess the reality around her. The opposition would not bother with the impeachment–they would prefer to let the administration bleed with non-stop investigation, until the presidential election comes next year.
But remember that we are now in the Tyson Zone, where everything is fair game. Choi Soon-sil is still on the run, and she still may be able to get in touch with the president. Even a politically finished president has a few remaining options to short-circuit the political process, and this president does not seem to have the instinct for self-preservation when it comes to Choi. I don’t want to actually write out what Park Geun-hye might do, because the mere thought of them sends chills down my spine. But I cannot get those thoughts out of my head, because they are no longer ridiculous. My worst nightmares for Korea’s democracy are now a realistic possibility. This is the shock that the Korean people are experiencing now.