Continuing the Discussion: South Korean Politics

Unique Strangeness of Park Geun-hye’s Downfall


In the midst of continual American election news, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, has been going through her own trials. Although the situation in South Korea at first appears to be a continuation of former corruption trends, a closer look reveals that this scandal is in fact unique.

The cast of characters includes now infamous Choi Soon-sil, her dead father Choi Tae-min and the Park family. Choi Soon-sil’s father, Choi Tae-min, was a cult leader who first contacted a 22-year-old Park Geun-hye shortly after the assassination of Park’s mother. Choi Tae-Min claimed to be channeling the spirit of Park’s mother, and in the process, became wealthy by exploiting their toxic relationship.

Following the assassination of both parents, Park took a leave of absence from politics, but upon re-entry, began to build a friendship with Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of Choi Tae-Min. As president, Park sent Choi Soon-sil policy briefs containing information ranging from secret meetings with North Korea to budget proposals. Retrospectively, one can see the influence of Choi Tae-Min on Park’s presidency in a series of convoluted policy speeches.

Though Park Geun-hye continues to deny any relationship with any cults (and specifically with the cult started by Choi Tae-Min called Yongsae-gyo), she has nonetheless appeared twice on television since the scandal erupted to apologize for placing trust in a non-elected friend.  On November 4, she even tried an appeal to pity by referring to herself as simply a lonely orphan.  

And on one level, this makes sense, because Park is not at the center of a selfish corruption scandal, but rather a scandal in which a friend appears to have gained tremendously while Park received little benefit.

However, Korean politics knows corruption well. In the 1980s, former president and dictator Chun Doo-Hwan personally made off with over a billion dollars. In 1997, he was also convicted of receiving more than $200 million in bribes from Korean companies through a money-laundering scheme that involved shell companies in both Korea and the U.S.

Even after South Korea transitioned to a democracy, leaders were still plagued by corruption scandals. Former president Lee Myung-bak’s brother and ally was arrested on bribery charges for accepting $500,000 from bank chairmen who were seeking political influence. Presidents before him also had corruption scandals linked to family members.  

Nonetheless, several facts about this case make it unique.  First, Park wasn’t using corruption rationally, like the above leaders. She was not rewarding close political allies, or improving her image with other powerful people. Instead, she was corrupt in an incredibly irrational way that hurt her own image. For example, when she gave money to Choi Soon-sil to purchase clothes for the presidential wardrobe, Choi stole much of the money and gave Park recognizably second-rate clothing.  

Also, the way that this scandal broke was unique. While the controversy started when Choi’s daughter was given a place at a prestigious university that wasn’t merited, it was cemented when Choi Soon-sil’s phone was discovered, left in her office with markups of presidential speeches. The Clinton email server may be bemoaned for its compromise of security, but this phone was another story; it wasn’t even encrypted and contained selfies of Choi to identify its owner.  

Finally, Park has stood by Choi and not attempted to hide the relationship. In Park’s public apologies, she has admitted to Choi marking up her speeches. This reveals that Park is willing to stand behind a political nobody.  

And, even as her ability to run the government collapses, she hasn’t cut ties altogether with Choi.  Although Choi is compared to Rasputin, this is in fact the type of scandal that seems out of place in the historical and modern world alike. It is the product of a potent cocktail of irrational corruption, unencrypted phones, political nobodies, shamanistic cults and embezzlement.

Julia Wargo is one of the Continuing the Discussion columnists for the SAIS Observer. She is a BA student at Johns Hopkins, spending a year receiving her Diploma in International Affairs at SAIS Bologna.



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