The old friend of the president's, Choi Soon-sil, also runs two non-profit foundations that prosecutors say boasted of its ties with the president to collect more than $70 million in donations from the country's major conglomerates. Prosecutors opened up an investigation into the foundations in early October, and are seeking Choi, who is accused of siphoning some of those funds for personal use — including to cover equestrian training for her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra. (Choi emerged in Germany over the weekend and denies any wrongdoing.)Read more here.
Much of the public anger now gripping the nation broke open over Choi's daughter in the first place. Chung, the equestrian, attended the nation's prestigious woman's college, Ewha University. Ewha's president was forced to resign this week as students protested Chung's preferential treatment and shady admission — which seemed to give her extra credit for being a champion dressage competitor. Media began looking closer at the ties between Park and Choi.
And the ties are interesting, indeed. Choi Soon-sil is the daughter of a man the president considered her mentor, Choi Tae-min. He claimed to be a pastor from a tiny pseudo-Christian sect, but a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy describes him as a 'Rasputin'-like character and his "church" is described by Korean media as more of a "Shamanistic cult." The New York Times explains further:
"Mr. Choi was the founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life. He befriended Ms. Park, 40 years his junior, soon after her mother was assassinated in 1974. According to a report by the Korean intelligence agency from the 1970s that was published by a South Korean newsmagazine in 2007, Mr. Choi initially approached Ms. Park by telling her that her mother had appeared in his dreams, asking him to help her.
Mr. Choi was a former police officer who had also been a Buddhist monk and a convert to Roman Catholicism. (He also used seven different names and was married six times by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 82.) He became a mentor to Ms. Park, helping her run a pro-government volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind."
Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from the presidency yesterday. When I did a Google search, I found that the only news report filed this year on the scandal was this one by CNN.
...The drama surrounds Park's friend and informal adviser, Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of abuse of power and attempted fraud following claims she had access to secret government documents and intervened in state affairs.
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.
"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.
Where else have we heard about presidential foundations getting pay-for-play donations?
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Rasputin.
Back to the CNN story:
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.Read more here.
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.