AP Explains: What's behind S. Korea's surreal scandal

AP News
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Posted: Nov 02, 2016 4:46 AM
AP Explains: What's behind S. Korea's surreal scandal

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's biggest political scandal in years includes a bucket of animal slop, an attack with heavy construction equipment on a government building, an abandoned Prada shoe and allegations that a Korean Rasputin has been running the highest office in the land.

As circus-like as it can seem, the building turmoil threatens the presidency of Park Geun-hye.

The possibility that Park's long-time friend, the daughter of a cult leader with no official role in the administration, may have pulled government strings from the shadows has united many in a state of boiling rage, no mean feat in a country that is hopelessly divided at times. But figuring out exactly who's involved, what's happening and why can be difficult.

Here's a breakdown of the scandal:

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A KOREAN RASPUTIN

At the center of the tempest is Choi Soon-sil, also known as Choi Seo-won, who some on the internet have compared to Rasputin, the Russian mystic who gained power in the early 20th century through his influence over the tsar.

Park and Choi met in the 1970s, around the time Park was acting as first lady. Her mother had been killed during a 1974 assassination attempt on her father, military strongman Park Chung-hee. Choi's father, a shadowy figure named Choi Tae-min who was a Buddhist monk, a religious cult leader and a Christian pastor at different times, emerged as the younger Park's mentor.

Park became president of New Spirit, a patriotic group set up by Choi's father, and Choi Soon-sil was reportedly head of the group's college unit — the two women are seen talking at a New Spirit event in a 1979 government video. Rumors swirled that New Spirit allowed the Choi clan to build a fortune by using their connection to the Park family to collect bribes.

In 1990, Park resigned as chairman of a separate foundation over suspicions that she allowed the Choi family to manipulate it for personal gain.

Choi Soon-sil, whose ex-husband is a former close aide of Park's, reportedly built a fortune during the 1980s and 1990s through real estate investments in affluent neighborhoods in southern Seoul.

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STACKS OF PRESIDENTIAL REPORTS — AND A YELLOW EXCAVATOR

After weeks of speculation, Park acknowledged last week that Choi had edited some presidential speeches and helped with "public relations," without elaborating.

A raft of media stories, however, portrays a much deeper involvement.

The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper, for instance, citing a former Choi associate, reported that a senior presidential aide gave thick stacks of government draft reports to Choi on a daily basis. Choi then allegedly discussed the issues with her friends and sent back recommendations to the president.

The newspaper reported that Choi made recommendations about the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, the jointly run Kaesong factory park in North Korea that was eventually shut down.

Choi is also said to have used her relationship with Park to win special favor for Choi's daughter and to pressure businesses to contribute money to two nonprofit foundations that Choi helped create and that she then looted for her own use.

Thousands have marched in protest, calling for Park's resignation or impeachment, and the president's approval ratings are near single digits.

On Monday, as Choi, 60, tried to enter the Seoul prosecutors' office, she lost her Prada shoe as a swarm of 300 journalists, and an unknown number of protesters, nearly knocked her to the ground several times. Social media erupted with images of the abandoned black footwear and the word "Soonderella," a play on Choi's first name and the fairy tale heroine who left behind her glass slipper at a ball.

Police reportedly stopped a protester from confronting Choi with a bucket filled with animal feces, and the next day police said a 45-year-old man surnamed Jeong rammed his yellow excavator into a gate near where Choi, who had earlier said she "deserves to die," was questioned.

"I came here to help her die," Jeong, said, according to police.

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LINKS TO A DICTATOR

The scandal strikes a deep chord in a country that has only recently emerged into a vibrant, rich democracy after decades of colonization, war, poverty, dictatorship and deep-seated corruption.

There is outrage that someone with Choi's allegedly murky past might have not only exploited her ties to Park for massive financial gain and favor but also made important state decisions.

Part of the anger is linked to the legacy of Park's dictator father. Revered by many for rebuilding from the rubble of war, critics say Park Chung-hee engineered his economic turn-around while committing massive human rights abuses and allowing widespread corruption by his friends.

To try to ease public fury, Park Geun-hye has nominated a new prime minister and fired senior secretaries, but it has so far done little.

"If we don't want to be blinded by politics based on shamanism again, we need to conduct an autopsy on power that has become devoid of justice," said an editorial column Monday in the conservative JoongAng Ilbo.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.