Rasputin-like scandal in South Korea echoes of dictatorial past

A political scandal involving South Korea's president and a cult leader have opened past wounds about the president's dictator father. Some praise the elder Park for rapidly growing the economy, while others remember him for committing human rights abuses. 

Choi Soon-sil (c.), who is involved in a political scandal, reacts as she is surrounded by the media upon her arrival at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, Monday.

The relationship between South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and a family friend and spiritual adviser is a scandal of Shakespearean proportions.

The controversy has not only led to a formal apology from Ms. Park, the forced resignation of 10 of her senior aides, and a call for the arrest of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. It has also forced the country to confront divisive views about Park’s father – the assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee – and questions about whether the younger Park is fit to lead.

Opposition leaders and thousands of protesters have demanded Park resign amid allegations she relied on Ms. Choi, a shamanistic cult leader, for advice, sharing classified information with her, even though Choi holds no government position.

Rumors have long circulated about the relationship between Park and the Choi family. Ms. Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, has been compared to Rasputin, the Russian religious cult leader in the early 1900s who was a trusted family friend of Nicholas II, Russia's last czar. The leader of a pseudo-Christian sect, Choi first became a mentor to Ms. Park after he told her Park’s assassinated mother reached out to him in a dream. But a Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) report claimed Choi exploited Park to secure bribes. Now, South Koreans fear Choi’s daughter has done the same.

“It’s a tragedy in its most basic form: Opportunists take advantage of an extraordinarily traumatized young woman,” writes David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “They totally took advantage of Park. And now, finally, the chickens come home to roost.”

However, the scandal has also forced South Korea to confront questions about its dictatorial past that have bubbled to the surface ever since Park returned to politics in 1998. Though conservative South Koreans have celebrated Park’s father's rule, her critics have said some of her actions are reminiscent of her father's dictatorship (specifically her treatment of journalists, protesters, and opposing politicians). The political scandal has added to this debate, with some opposition leaders calling for a reform of the country’s constitution because, they say, the power of the presidency allowed for the scandal to happen, explains Kyung Moon Hwang, a history professor at USC who specializes in long-term historical patterns in Korea.

But Dr. Hwang tells the Monitor in a phone interview Monday he doesn’t believe that's the right approach. 

“South Koreans worry about the health of the democracy, and whether it’s retreated because of the current president,” Dr. Hwang tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “But if you look at it from another angle, these are part of the growing pains of a 30-year-old democracy. It’s not very old. It’s not really a matter of the system being problematic as much as the culture of politics being problematic. That might just take a long time to fix.”

This debate will likely continue as investigators attempt to piece together how involved Ms. Choi was in Ms. Park’s presidency. After weeks of media reports about her relationship to Choi, Park acknowledged Tuesday that Choi edited some of her speeches and was a public relations adviser of sorts. But widespread media reports continue to suggest the relationship was much more extensive. 

The South Korean cable channel JTBC first reported it obtained a discarded tablet computer once owned by Choi, according to The New York Times. Files discovered on the tablet included drafts of 44 speeches and other statements Park gave from the start of her presidency in 2012 to 2014. The computer log showed Choi received the speeches hours or days before Park delivered them, with many passages marked in red. Among the speeches was one she delivered in Dresden, Germany, in 2014. The speech was received as one of Park's most important policy statements, setting out her vision for eventual reunification with Korea, according to the Times.

Because Choi has no official ties to the administration, she and the people who provided her with the confidential documents could face up to seven years in prison if they are charged. Choi also faces accusations she used her relationship with Choi to secure an illicit fortune and personal favors. Through the guise of two nonprofit foundations, Choi is alleged to have brought in about 80 billion wan ($70 million) from South Korean conglomerates, which she is accused of then using for personal ends. The president of Ewha Womans University also resigned amid accusations Choi used her connections to the president to get her daughter admitted to the prestigious college.

As investigators try to parse out these details, they are trying to determine the extent of Choi’s influence over Park. Did she sway Park’s policies, in addition to editing her speeches and critiquing her appearance?

While Park has seen her favorability ratings plummet in the wake of the scandal, she has faced criticism for being a disconnected leader that relies on the advice of only a few while in office. But the close circle Park's critics have said she built for herself follows a tragic young life. Her mother was assassinated in 1974, forcing the younger Park to assume the role of first lady beside her father. Five years later, her father was killed by the head of the Korean CIA, in part, said the director, because her father refused to cut off the elder Choi, the head of pseudo-Christian sect, from Ms. Park, according to The New York Times.

For years, Park "avoided the limelight, but returned to the public eye when she was elected to the National Assembly," in 1998, wrote Ilene Prusher for the Monitor in 2001.

Park says she reemerged in part because her father's term was "evaluated in a negative way." Under Park Chung Hee, South Korea became a rapidly developing economy, normalized relations with Japan, and started the first formal dialogue with North Korea resulting in a groundbreaking 1972 agreement to work toward reconciliation.

But many remember him primarily as a dictator whose regime squelched democracy and committed human rights abuses.

After a failed bid for the presidency in 2007, Park ran a successful campaign in 2012 on the platforms of reinvigorating the stagnating economy and fighting for unification with North Korea. The election pitted older, more conservative generations against a younger generation that favored a softer approach to their northern neighbor.

"Middle-aged and elderly voters tended to favor Park partly because of their memories of the economic achievements of her father, despite his record as a dictator," wrote the Monitor's Donald Kirk in 2012. 

But Park's critics have criticized her for following in the footsteps of her father, clamping down on labor and citizens groups that have opposed some of her policies, according to The Nation. While this response might be reminiscent of the past, Namhee Lee, co-director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells the Monitor that South Koreans' reactions to the political scandal involving Ms. Choi isn't. 

"The response of the Korean people has shown that Koreans would no longer tolerate this kind of behavior and see it as an infringement of their political and civil rights," writes Dr. Lee.  

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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