South Korea presidential scandal: What you need to know

CNN/November 2, 2016

By James Griffiths

South Korea has been plunged into a political scandal that threatens to engulf the presidency of Park Geun-hye and has seen thousands of protesters take to the streets.

Park sacked the country's prime minister Wednesday, amid an ongoing cabinet reshuffle and the resignations of several of her key aides.

The drama surrounds Park's friend and informal adviser, Choi Soon-sil, for whom prosecutors issued an arrest warrant Wednesday on charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud following accusations she had access to secret government documents and intervened in state affairs.

Who are the Chois?

Park's relationship with Choi and her father Choi Tae-min has long been controversial in Korea.

The elder Choi first became close with Park following the death of her mother at the hands of a North Korean assassin in 1974, while Park's father, dictator Park Chung-hee, was president.

According to the Korea Times, Choi founded the Eternal Life Church in the 1970s, mixing aspects Christianity, Buddhism and indigenous Korean religion Cheondism, which incorporates elements of shamanism.

Choi named himself a modern day Buddha and called for all people to strive for eternal life.

A confidential 2007 US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks, referenced rumors that Choi had "complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result."

After Park's father was assassinated in 1979 by the then director of the Korean CIA, his killer cited Choi's relationship with the younger Park as one of the reasons.

Even members of Park's family expressed concern. Her younger sister Guen-ryong and brother Ji-man filed a petition in 1990 to then-president Roh Tae-woo expressing concerns that Choi was manipulating Park.

What influence did Choi Soon-sil have?

After her father died in 1994, aged 82, Choi Soon-sil succeeded him as church leader and spiritual mentor to Park, as the former first daughter became a political force of her own.

"The family has had an extraordinary influence over Park Geun-hye for essentially her entire adult life," David Kang, a Korea expert at the University of Southern California, told CNN.

"It's much more than simply, 'oh she knows this person,' it's deeply intertwined, almost like they're Rasputin and Park Geun-hye is just a puppet."

Though she never held an official position, recent revelations showed that Choi was given advance access to presidential speeches and other documents.

Local media and opposition parties have accused Choi of abusing her relationship with the president to force companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations she runs.

In a televised apology, Park said Choi looked at "some documents" for a certain period of time after Park took office, but didn't specify what they were.

"I am shocked and my heart is breaking for causing public concern," Park said.

Shamanism and cults

While much of the outrage has surrounded Choi's alleged influence over Korean politics, the scandal has also shone a light on the prevalence of cults and alternative religious movements in the country.

Korean shamanism, or Muism, is an ethnic Korean religion with similarities to Japanese Shintoism.

According to the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Muism "focuses on solving the problems of daily life through communication between humans and the spiritual world, with shamans acting as liaisons."

The country is also home to the Unification Church, known as the "Moonies" for founder Sun Myung Moon, famous for mass weddings and allegedly forcing members to disconnect from their families.

While Christianity and Buddhism dominate Korean religious life, some churches incorporate shamanistic practices and many people consult with fortune tellers or shamans.

Choi's movement mixed strands of all three faiths, and claimed the ability to communicate with the dead and produce objects offering magical protection, according to Korean media.

During Park's inauguration, the president stood in front of a tree bedecked with colorful silk purses, reportedly recommended by Choi to bring prosperity and good fortune.

Stemming the scandal

As president, Park is immune from prosecution for anything but insurrection or treason, and her term is not due to end until 2018. However, she can be impeached by the National Assembly, the country's parliament, and the supreme constitutional court.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to call for her immediate resignation however, and prosecutors are investigating Choi, who has been placed under "emergency detention."

On Thursday, Park sacked her prime minister and replaced two other key cabinet positions. She has also called on several key aides to resign.

In South Korea, the premiership is largely a ceremonial position, but its holder serves as deputy to the president.

Reputational fallout

Park's approval rating has plummeted since "Choi Soon-sil-gate" began, dropping to 21.1% last week, according to local pollsters.

While analysts do not think the controversy will have too much effect on the country's economy, it couldn't come at a worse time for brand Korea in the wake of the Samsung exploding phones scandal.

It may also hamper the Park administration's ability to tackle key economic and security issues, exacerbating her Saenuri Party's weak standing in the National Assembly following April elections.

North Korea has also been quick to rain criticism on Park, a longtime target of the country's propaganda machine.

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