A Leader Led Astray, People in Disarray: Choi Sun-Sil Scandal

A recent political scandal has left Korea in shambles. Read for a summery of the issue, along with a personal take on the individual’s attitude in the midst of such a crisis.

*Cover Image: Students gather in protest against the Park regime.

The leader of a state is secretly under heavy influence of a person who is not affiliated with the government in any way, who has become a mysterious figure with immense amounts of power and affluence under her fingertips. This falsely bestowed power reaches specific decisions handled through the puppet “leader” and even classified national documents. Does this sound like a post-apocalyptic novel to you? Perhaps a chapter in a history book, or a far-fetched conspiracy theory?

Shame on this nation: it is a current reality.

When Park Geun-hye was first elected as President of the Republic of Korea on December 19, 2012, the post-election sentiments were nothing out of the ordinary. She had won 51.6% of the vote [1], and the results left some of the populace disappointed, some indifferent, and some hopeful. In other words, her presidency started out like any other. Many Koreans looked out into a new era, hoping for the daughter of ex-president Park Chung-hee, and the first female president to be serving in Korea, to be a source of deliverance from the country’s societal problems. President Park’s career then saw many twists and turns, including election-meddling scandals, labour policy criticism, and heavy protest relating to government-created history textbooks. But the recent scandal, involving the aforementioned power figure, has led her approval ratings to drop to an all-time low of 5% [2].

Flags wave above the crowd as citizens protest against the Park regime.

The crux of the scandal is that president Park has been under the counsel of a personal acquaintance, a woman named Choi Sun-sil. The nature of this relationship is still being investigated, with Park only describing Choi as an “old friend”, but it has been strongly speculated that spiritual or shamanic guidance is at the core, especially with Choi’s father being a religious cult leader. This has provided even more of a sensationalist twist for conspiracy theorists and has given rise to the metaphor of a “Korean Rasputin”. Abundant rumours and first-hand accounts relate to Choi’s father having, at one point, completely held control over Park’s soul in her early life. The scandal is extremely complex and multi-faceted, and many narratives have yet to be confirmed, many questions yet to be answered.

Evidence, including some 200 computer files found in Choi’s office by journalists, exposed that Choi has advised president Park on matters big and small. Choi’s influence reached presidential speeches, important policy statements, and even wardrobe choices. From there, a string of investigations led to a mass of evidence on Choi’s corruption, allegations including manipulation of her daughter’s university admittance and connections with mass corporations. Increasing confirmation of the Choi family’s massive wealth has done much to continue spurning the nation’s anger. Choi Sun-sil has since returned to Korea and is awaiting trial for criminal charges.

One of the many flyers found near protest areas

Park’s reputation is now irrecoverable. Her feeble public apologies have done nothing to alleviate the public’s outrage, if not fueled it even more. She has discharged multiple officials in an attempt to regain some of the lost trust, but the citizens continue to cry out for resignation and even impeachment, while masses of people continue to gather in front of Gwanghwamun for protest, and in other local areas apart from Seoul. The population is no longer divided on evaluating Park as they were when she was first elected; the people are now in almost complete unity, rallying against the atrocious deception and complete disregard for democracy that the scandal has shown in president Park.

And what happens to women’s places in the government? While the conservative and heavily gender-biased nation of Korea seemed to have made some progress by electing a female president, some of the blame of this scandal is shifting towards “the inability of women to govern with rational thought”. Does it seem likely that Korea will be open to electing another female leader soon? What happens to international relations? What happens to North Korea, seeing that even Kim Jong-Un recently questioned the nature of Park’s foreign policies? The scandal permeates across every field of concern.


The issue goes much further than a simple corruption scandal. Many students of KIS are unaware of the magnitude of this problem, perhaps being masked by another riot of the U.S. presidential elections. But even while Koreans watch and mock the U.S. elections as if it were a circus, they forget that their own government has been one all along. Park’s entire presidency has been a farce. A puppet-master has been behind it all along: a leader that the people did not know they were voting for when they voted for Park in 2012. While some argument persists that the nation must seek stability while allowing Park to finish her presidency, this is difficult for the average civilian to accept when they feel that the government is not in their hands anymore. Indeed, one of the many slogans being cried across the country is “Korea is no longer a democracy”.

As individuals in a large, troubled population, we must shift our focus to being aware of the big picture. The single scandal is leading to greater attention in other areas of society with a lack of transparency. Korea needs to wake up to the reality that the scandal is only a centerpiece to a feast of corruption that has been continuing for decades. Awareness is crucial- the issue evolves daily and information becomes outdated within days. This article covers only the tip of the iceberg. With the limited writing capabilities of a high-schooler to capture such a hefty topic, readers are urged to follow the issue with other sources. It is also crucial not to be caught up in the popular fury, but to retain the ability to discern what information is relevant and credible, while genuinely understanding the implication of the issue. It is so easy to be angry, but so hard to be truly angry.

I attended a mass protest on November 12, 2016, where an estimated maximum of a million citizens gathered near Gwanghwamun, Cheongwadae (Blue House), and the Seoul City Hall. The number million can be hard to fathom- picture street after street as oceans of people, the economic and political center of the city overrun with anger. The demonstration held its heat well into the night, symbolic of how much personal passion this event had galvanized. The chants were deafening, the fury overwhelming.

As I stood holding a candle, staring into the crowd with my father, he told me, “shouting and making yourself heard is important, but just by being here, you are voting with your feet. You are expressing with your feet.” Perhaps it is difficult to see how we, as individuals, can change so massive of an issue. But taking a stance means something bigger than this scandal. We, too, can make a difference in each of our small worlds. Whether that means being an honest president, citizen, student, or school club officer, everyone has a place in making this country a better one. We stand at a crossroads in history- may we stand, ideologies united, in the belief that we have the power to change something.

– Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)


[1]: http://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=449


Image credits: Jong-ha Yoon

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