Pressure Mounts On S. Korean President Over Her Spiritual 'Puppetmaster' | KERA News

Pressure Mounts On S. Korean President Over Her Spiritual 'Puppetmaster'

Nov 1, 2016
Originally published on November 1, 2016 10:16 am

A political scandal on a scale that South Korea has never seen is putting the president's job in jeopardy. A public opinion survey released Tuesday shows President Park Geun-hye's approval rating at 10 percent, an unprecedented low. Over the weekend, as many as 30,000 South Koreans flooded into Seoul's downtown to rally for her resignation.

All of this is over Park's reliance on a spiritual adviser, Choi Soon-sil, who may have been meddling in state affairs.

"How was this kept such a big secret for four years?" says Joung Hwang, a law professor at Korea's Hangkuk University of Foreign Studies.

Choi, who has no official ties to government, has allegedly been calling the shots for the president behind the scenes on matters ranging from her wardrobe to North Korea policy to the national budget. Choi's family, which is linked to a shamanistic cult, befriended Park in the 1970s with claims it could channel voices from the president's dead mother.

"This is basically a kind of witch who has bewitched our president and has managed to run the state affairs," Hwang says.

A discarded hard drive that prosecutors believe belongs to the spiritual adviser contained confidential government documents and dozens of drafts of presidential speeches — with Choi's edits. Investigators are also looking into whether Choi used her influence to collect millions in donations from companies like Samsung and LG for nonprofits she ran, and then siphoned the money for her personal use.

As controversy grew last week, the president addressed the scandal in a 90-second, nationally televised address.

"I'm very sorry for causing concern, shocking and hurting the people," Park said. She admitted letting Choi access a trove of advance speeches, but nothing more.

On Monday, Choi was mobbed by so many reporters when she appeared for questioning in Seoul that she twice fell and lost her Prada shoe. She apologized to the public for a "sin I deserve to die for," without specifying what that was.

Now Choi is facing accusations of embezzlement, tax evasion and acquiring classified information. Prosecutors are holding her as they consider charges. Park has said nothing since her apology. But as her approval rating drops and the scandal widens, the calls for Park's resignation get louder.

"I don't expect the president to step down on her own; she's very obstinate like that," Joung Hwang says.

Park has a little more than a year left in her term. Within South Korean institutions — and on the streets — the pressure on the president shows no sign of letting up.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A political scandal like South Korea has never seen is putting the president's job in jeopardy. It's all because of her ties to a spiritual adviser who may have been meddling in state affairs. NPR's Elise Hu reports from Seoul.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: As many as 30,000 people flooded into Seoul's downtown this weekend to demand South Korean President Park Geun-hye step down. Park has only one year left in her term, but she's at the center of a scandal that's paralyzed the country.

JOUNG HWANG: How was this kept such a big secret for four years?

HU: Joung Hwang is a law professor at Korea's Hankuk University. The secret he's talking about is new information that the president's old friend, who has no official ties to government, has been calling the shots behind the scenes. Her family, which is linked to a shamanistic cult, befriended Park in the 1970s.

HWANG: This is basically a kind of witch who has bewitched our president and has managed to just run the state affairs.

HU: A discarded hard drive prosecutors believe belongs to the spiritual adviser, Choi Soon-sil, showed dozens of drafts of presidential speeches with her edits. Investigators are also looking into whether she used her influence to collect millions in donations from major companies for her personal use. The president last week addressed the scandal in a national address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT PARK GEUNHYE: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "I'm very sorry for causing concern, shocking and hurting the people," Park said. Choi was mobbed by so many reporters when she appeared for questioning in Seoul on Monday that she twice fell and lost a shoe. Choi could face charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and acquiring classified information. The president has said nothing else, as her approval rating plummets to 10 percent and calls for her resignation get louder. Joung Hwang.

HWANG: I don't expect president Park to step down on her own. She's very obstinate like that.

HU: The pressure on President Park shows no signs of letting up. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.