South Korea rocked by 'shadow president' scandal

South Korea scandal: The presidency of the East Asian republic is reeling from revelations of close ties between the president and the daughter of a controversial religious leader.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Choi Soon-sil (C), who is involved a political scandal, is surrounded by media upon her arrival at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday.

Choi Soon-sil, the woman accused of influencing South Korea's presidential affairs and using her ties to President Park Geun-hye for personal gain, appeared before the Seoul Central District Prosecutor's Office on Monday, apologizing to journalists and protesters surrounding the courthouse. 

Making her way through a throng of 300 journalists and protesters demanding that she be arrested and the president resign, a tearful Ms. Choi asked for forgiveness, saying, "I committed a sin that deserves death." 

Choi, the daughter of a leader of a controversial religious sect, has been at the center of the scandal rocking South Korea since last week, when President Park admitted after weeks of speculation that Choi had edited some of her speeches and provided help with public relations. The relationship between Park and the Choi family dates back to the 1970s, as The New York Times reported last week:

Mr. Choi was the founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life. He befriended Ms. Park, 40 years his junior, soon after her mother was assassinated in 1974. According to a report by the Korean intelligence agency from the 1970s that was published by a South Korean newsmagazine in 2007, Mr. Choi initially approached Ms. Park by telling her that her mother had appeared in his dreams, asking him to help her.

Mr. Choi was a former police officer who had also been a Buddhist monk and a convert to Roman Catholicism. (He also used seven different names and was married six times by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 82.) He became a mentor to Ms. Park, helping her run a pro-government volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind.

Speculation – and outrage – about the nature of the relationship between the younger Ms. Choi and Park first surfaced amid protests and allegations from students at Ewha Womans University, a prestigious women's college in Seoul, that Choi had used her connections to the president to get her daughter admitted into the school, where she then allegedly received preferential treatment. The president of the university was forced to resign last week. 

According to South Korean media reports, Choi also used her connections to the president to pressure businesses into donating money to Choi's two nonprofit organizations – money which she then allegedly used for personal purposes. In just a few months, the media speculate, the nonprofit foundations collected roughly 80 billion won, or US$70 million.

Now, investigators are working to determine the nature and scope of the access Choi was given to confidential government matters and whether she was provided with sensitive presidential documents, raiding the homes of some government officials in the process. 

On Saturday, an estimated 12,000 South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul to demand that Park step down from the presidency. 

"Park has lost her authority as president and showed she doesn't have the basic qualities to govern a country," Jae-myung Lee, from the opposition Minjoo Party and the mayor of the city of Seongnam, told protesters. 

If found guilty, Choi and the people who provided her with confidential documents could face up to seven years in prison for violating the security of presidential records, the Korea Times reports.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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