South Korea’s President Faces Crisis over Spiritual Mentor

Hillary-gate was never like this. The Democratic presidential candidate may have got rid of more than 30,000 emails, but was she beholden to a spiritual mentor, and did she make off with untold millions? That's the story revolving around South Korean President Park Geun-hye's close friend , Choi Soon-sil, on suspicion of having siphoned off millions of dollars from major corporations. Prosecutors said they would charge her with influence peddling, abuse of power and attempted fraud.

For all the differences, the parallels between Hillary-gate and Choi-gate are mesmerizing. Hillary Clinton, if she defeats Donald Trump on November 8, would be the first woman elected as US president. Park Geun-hye, whom Choi, her closest confidant, exploited for decades, is the first woman president of South Korea. The similarities extend to the nature of the charges and innuendos surrounding them.

Maybe they should be commiserating with one another over how to fend off the accusations of foes who would like nothing better than to destroy them. They could begin by talking over the emails, discovered on hard-drives and elsewhere, that persist in surfacing to their extreme discomfiture.

Who would have believed that Hillary as secretary of state would have carelessly used her private email for State Department business? And who in Korea would imagine that Park would have emailed drafts of her speeches and much else to Choi Soon-sil, her personal friend from when Choi’s late father, spiritual adviser, pastor and all-around confidence man, was close to her father, Park Chung-hee, during his 18 years and five months of dictatorial rule?

Just as the FBI has looked for secrets in Clinton’s emails, so prosecutors in Seoul are asking Choi about all that showed up in her emails after a cable TV station in Seoul discovered them on a tablet computer left after an interview. Alarmingly, the emails included real news – South Korean defense officials had chatted with North Koreans on three occasions, in secret, while the North Korean state media attacked Park as “a witch.”

As in Hillary-gate, Choi-gate, as it’s known in the Korean media, has as much to do with donations to foundations as it does with emails.

Yes, while the Clinton Foundation is said to have been a recipient of gifts in exchange for influence and favors, two foundations in Korea for which Choi was soliciting funds are at the center of the investigation here. No, Park has no direct connection with either of them, but Choi is believed to have set them up to benefit the president when her term runs out in February 2018 – and to enrich herself and her daughter in Germany.

Choi-gate may have more serious repercussions for Korea than does Hillary-gate for the U.S. despite Donald Trump’s oratory denouncing Hillary as a “criminal.”

Park’s foes say she too is a criminal, and their campaign seems certain to gain momentum in the run-up to the next Korean presidential election in December of next year. Park has called for revision of the 1987 “democracy constitution” that limits Korean presidents to a single five-year term, but that proposal is all but forgotten during the current scandal.

Right now Park would be lucky not to have to resign in disgrace before the end of her term. The opposition Democratic Party believes one of its candidates has a good chance of defeating the candidate of Park’s conservative Saenuri Party, in power after the decade from 1998 to 2008 in which first Kim Dae-jung and then Roh Moo-hyun pursued reconciliation with North Korea,

While battling to contain the fallout, Park is reviled as a “lame duck” in the Korean media, unable to act effectively on rising tensions with North Korea or to focus on a stagnating economy. At worst, the distraction of the scandals makes her an obstacle to dealing with anything important. At the least, she seems irrelevant as a leader.

Much depends on Choi. Dubbed Park's Rasputin in the local media, she surprised just about everyone by returning over the weekend from Germany and submitting to prosecutor’s questions. So far they’ve focused on what happened to nearly $70 million in “donations” that she got for the mysterious Mir and K-Sports Foundations from such titans of the economy as Samsung and Hyundai.

Both Park and Choi have gone through apologies. Choi has to explain how she accumulated enough wealth to buy a small hotel and two residences near Frankfurt, Germany, while her daughter attended a horse-riding school to perfect her skills at dressage. Choi is believed to have made the purchases through shell companies.

It was Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, who convinced Park that he could perceive the lost soul of her mother, assassinated in 1974 by a bullet intended for her father, President Park Chung-hee. Vulnerable emotionally, Park succeeded her mother as de facto first lady while Choi Tae-min's daughter offered sisterly comfort and advice.

Park's sadness, and vulnerability, deepened when her dictator father was assassinated five years later by his intelligence chief, who some say was angered by the elder Choi's influence. Questions are sure to get around to how much Choi Tae-min's daughter, never officially on anyone's staff, influenced or even directed policy decisions after the death of her father 22 years ago.

As tragedy and melodrama, Choi-gate and Hillary-gate are no doubt quite different. Both sagas, however, share the common denominator of questionable emails and gift-giving to foundations.

Park has to deal with cascading political protest. Did she persuade Choi to return to Seoul and acknowledge all she did despite the risk of imprisonment? True confessions would be the deepest sign of Choi’s love and loyalty – and possibly save Park’s presidency.

Donald Kirk is a longtime freelance correspondent based in Asia