Asia Pacific / Politics

Secret confidante of ousted South Korean leader Park gets 20 years in prison over scandal

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

The friend of ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye who was at the center of an influence-peddling scandal that rocked the country’s business and political elite has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, a Seoul court said Tuesday.

Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of Park, was convicted of receiving bribes from South Korean conglomerates including Samsung, the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and semiconductors, and the Lotte Group.

Park was dismissed from the presidency last March after being impeached and standing trial separately on charges of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. She denies any wrongdoing.

The court also sentenced the chairman of Lotte, the country’s fifth-largest conglomerate, to two years and six months in prison Tuesday and ordered his immediate arrest.

The chairman, Shin Dong-bin, was in court and taken into custody.

Prosecutors had sought a four-year prison term for Shin, accusing Lotte of giving a foundation backed by Park and Choi 7 billion won ($6.46 million) for favor such as a duty free store license.

Shin and Lotte, which has interests ranging from retail to chemicals, had denied the charge.

The prison term for Shin follows a December ruling in which the court found him guilty of breach of trust and embezzlement in a different case but suspended sentencing, leaving him free to run the group.

Prosecutors had demanded a 25-year prison term for Choi on charges including coercion, bribery, influence-peddling and abuse of authority, saying she had used her links with Park for personal gain.

Tuesday’s verdict follows an appeals court ruling last week that freed the scion of the family that controls Samsung, Lee Jae-yon, after a year in detention.

Lee had been charged with giving some of the bribes that Choi was accused of receiving. However, last week’s ruling said Lee’s bribe-giving was a “passive compliance to political power,” appearing to put the weight of the blame on Park and Choi.

Park, who is in jail, is currently being defended by state attorneys after her defense team resigned en masse last October in protest at the extension of her detention period until April this year.

A verdict in her trial is expected before her detention period ends in April.

Choi, the daughter of a shadowy religious figure, had been at the Park’s side for decades, bound to the politician by her father.

Now 61, she may spend the rest of her life in prison after the ruling over her role in the epic corruption scandal that rocked the nation and brought down her lifelong friend.

Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, made the first connection to Park decades ago.

When Park’s mother was assassinated in 1974 in a failed attempt to kill her dictator father, Park Chung-hee, Choi Tae-min sent the future president a letter claiming he had seen her mother in his dreams.

The senior Choi, 40 years older than Park and the seven-times-married founder of a cult-like group, won her trust. His influence grew after Park’s father was himself shot dead in 1979 and she became a recluse.

A later U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks noted widespread rumors that Choi Tae-min had “complete control over Park’s body and soul.”

Choi Soon-sil became a close friend of Park’s, handling numerous aspects of her daily life even down to her wardrobe choices.

In 1990 Park’s sister and brother sent then-President Roh Tae-woo a letter pleading for him to “rescue” their sibling from Choi Tae-min and his relatives.

The Choi clan sought to profit from their connection to Park and persuaded her to cut all contact with her siblings, according to sister Park Geun-ryoung.

Choi Tae-min died in 1994 but Soon-sil inherited his guiding role.

Three years later Park entered politics, winning a seat in the National Assembly.

By the time Park was elected president in 2012 and moved into the Blue House she relied heavily on Choi for decisions over policy and personnel, according to a probe by prosecutors last year.

Choi had no title or security clearance, and remained largely unknown to the public. But recorded phone conversations released by prosecutors during Park’s own trial revealed Choi giving orders regarding policy directives or public relations campaigns at the presidential office.

Choi was heard constantly asking a key aide to Park, “Did you write down what I just said?” or admonishing him, “Why didn’t you do that last time?” — while the official spoke in the respectful Korean language terms usually reserved to address superiors.

Along the way, prosecutors say, she used her influence on Park to force major Seoul firms including Samsung to donate tens of millions of dollars to nonprofit foundations that she allegedly used for personal gain.

The ties finally came to light in late 2016 when a Seoul TV station obtained Choi’s tablet computer — ostensibly when a reporter found it in an abandoned office — containing many confidential presidential documents, including drafts of Park’s speeches.

Choi tearfully apologized when she was summoned by prosecutors in October 2016 — her first public appearance — as the fury over the scandal sparked nationwide protests urging Park’s ousting.

But she later denied all charges against her, saying she had little influence over Park.

For her part, the former president — who is on trial separately and denies all the charges against her — publicly apologized for “overtrusting” Choi.

Ex-lawmaker Chun Yu-ok, a former spokeswoman for Park’s party and once a close ally of the ex-president, described the Choi clan as “vulgar, greedy and sleazy” in a recent book on her experiences in politics.

Chun cut ties with Park in 2007, and slammed her as “someone who should never be president” during Park’s victorious election campaign five years later.

She feared that if Park became head of state, “the country would be ruled by the collective leadership of the Choi clan,” the former journalist wrote.

“I hoped my fear would prove to be wrong, but unfortunately it turned out to be correct — a big tragedy for our country.”

“They were people of the darkness.”