President Park Geun-hye of South Korea is in the biggest fight of her political life. She is in the midst of a political scandal involving allegations of corruption and that her close personal friend and “shaman,” Choi Soon-sil, was a shadowy, Rasputin-like figure who generally functioned as the president’s puppetmaster. Park is believed to have shared classified government documents with Choi, who has no security clearance. Choi also, allegedly, used her connections and influence to shape state policy, pocket millions in corporate donations, and rig her daughter’s admission to Seoul’s prestigious Ewha Women’s University.
The Choi scandal has, at a time of economic trouble and increasing tensions with North Korea, thrown the Park administration’s handling of state affairs into question, and outraged many ordinary citizens. Over the past two weeks, massive numbers of South Koreans have hit the streets, calling for Park’s resignation and impeachment.
DOING WELL BY DOING BAD
With all the rumors, it is difficult to parse fact from fiction. What we do know is that in the summer of 2016, South Korean media reported on the suspected involvement of Choi, Park, and some of her senior aides in an unusual fundraising process. Choi, according to the reports, had pressured the country’s top corporations into donating the equivalent of $68.1 million to launch two foundations, Mi-R and K-Sports, to promote South Korean culture and sports. The donations were collected just days before the foundations’ launch without undergoing proper government vetting, and Choi allegedly pocketed part of the funds.
A frenzy of investigations by the media and the Ministry of Justice ensued, revealing that Choi had manipulated the admissions process to get her daughter into Ewha. Although academically unqualified, her daughter was one of the top equestrians in Asia, and the university allegedly changed its admission requirements to emphasize skill at dressage; in return, Choi helped funnel illicit government funds to the school. Manipulating university admissions is a serious transgression in South Korea, where students