Asia

South Korea's presidential scandal

  • 16 January 2017
  • From the section Asia
In this 18 November 2016, file photo, protesters wearing masks of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, left and Choi Soon-sil, Park's long-time friend, in Seoul, South Korea. Image copyright AP
Image caption The scandal is centred on the close relationship between Ms Park and Ms Choi

South Korea's parliament has voted on 9 December to impeach President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal.

Ms Park stepped back from her duties following the vote and her case is now being heard by the constitutional court.

The scandal, which has generated huge protests, centres on her relationship with an old friend, and has brought allegations of cult activities, influence-peddling and leaks of classified information.

What is the relationship at the heart of the scandal?

In 1974, Park Geun-hye's mother was killed by a North Korean spy who had intended to kill Ms Park's father, then-military leader Park Chung-hee. Ms Park, then aged 22, became a stand-in first lady for her widowed father.

Image copyright AFP/getty
Image caption Ms Choi has returned from abroad to face questioning

It was then she got to know Choi Tae-min, a pseudo-Christian leader who set up a cult called The Church of Eternal Life. He said he had been visited by the soul of Ms Park's late mother who asked him to guide her.

He became Ms Park's mentor, while also amassing considerable wealth and power.

When President Park senior was assassinated by his head of intelligence in 1979, there was speculation it was because the spy chief was worried the president was being manipulated by the man dubbed "the Korean Rasputin".

By this point Ms Park was firm friends with Mr Choi's daughter, Choi Soon-sil. Their critics believe Ms Choi perpetuated her father's habits.

Why has the friendship become problematic?

On 20 November, Ms Choi was charged with various offences, including abuse of authority, coercion, attempted coercion and attempted fraud. She is now on trial.

Few claims have been off-limits in the media coverage, with some reports going as far as suggesting the president is a puppet who hosted shamanist rituals at the presidential compound. But many of the lurid claims are unsubstantiated.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption With no immediate family, President Park came to rely too much on her friend, critics claim

Ms Choi - who is in custody - is accused of using her presidential connections to pressure companies for millions of dollars in donations to two non-profit foundations she controlled.

The claims have even swept up Samsung in the investigation - the firm is one of eight that has admitted making payments to the foundation, but denies it did so in return for any favours.

President Park is alleged to have been personally involved, instructing Ms Choi and two presidential aides to collect money for the launch of Ms Choi's foundations, according to prosecution documents submitted to the court.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters have marched in vast numbers to demand Ms Park stands down

Ms Choi is also accused of having received large numbers of confidential government documents from Ms Park, via an aide. These allegedly included information about ministerial candidates and North Korea.

There are even claims Ms Choi took advantage of the president's wardrobe budget - buying cheap outfits and keeping the change.

What do the two women say?

They have both apologised, but it remains unclear exactly what for.

When she was first questioned in October, Ms Choi said she had committed an "unpardonable crime", though her lawyer said this was not a legal admission of guilt.

President Park has herself admitted some lapses. She says she did consult Ms Choi for advice, and that she helped her edit her speeches, but that this stopped once she had a team of advisers in place.

Witnesses have claimed that Ms Choi received briefings and official papers long after that occurred. Documents were also discovered on an unsecured tablet computer found in an old office of Ms Choi's.

But the tone of the president's pronouncements has changed over time. She began with opaque apologies: "Regardless of what the reason may be, I am sorry that the scandal has caused national concern and I humbly apologise to the people."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Park said she had "put too much faith" in her friendship with Ms Choi

But she has moved on to "heartbroken" public confessions of naivety: "Sad thoughts trouble my sleep at night. I realise that whatever I do, it will be difficult to mend the hearts of the people, and then I feel a sense of shame."

She had said she was willing to be questioned by investigators, but has so far resisted their attempts to speak to her.

Her spokesman said the prosecutors' allegation that she colluded with Ms Choi was "deeply regrettable" and "but a house of cards built on repeated imagination".

So how is Samsung involved?

Prosecutors allege Lee Jae-yong, heir to South Korea's largest conglomerate and its de facto chief, approved payments of 43bn won ($36.4m, £30.3m) to Ms Choi's foundations in exchange for government favours.

In particular, prosecutors are investigating whether the payments bought support for a controversial merger of two Samsung affiliates.

Some investors opposed the deal, saying one of the affiliates's shares were undervalued, but support from a major shareholder, the National Pension Service (NPS), helped the deal go through.

The official who oversaw the NPS has since been charged with putting pressure on managers to approve the merger, which strengthened Mr Lee's control over a key part of the conglomerate.

Prosecutors are seeking an arrest warrant for Mr Lee. Samsung has rejected allegations of wrongdoing.

Is anyone else involved?

Several former presidential aides have been investigated.

An Chong-bum, Ms Park's former senior secretary for policy co-ordination, has been charged with abuse of authority, coercion and attempted coercion, and Jung Ho-sung is accused of passing classified presidential documents to Ms Choi.

Local media have also been busy finding colourful associates of Ms Choi who were close to the president, including various celebrities and her personal trainer, who was appointed as a presidential aide.

Does the impeachment vote end Ms Park's career?

Not quite.

The vote was overwhelming - 234 members of parliament voted to impeach her in a secret ballot, with only 56 standing by her, meaning some members of her ruling Saenuri party voted in favour of the motion.

Ms Park has declined to appear before the constitutional court, but under the law the court can proceed regardless. If six of the nine judges endorse the vote, she will be removed from office.

Meanwhile Hwang Kyo-ahn, the country's prime minister, is serving as interim president.

If the judges rule against Ms Park, new elections must be held within 60 days.

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