2016 South Korean political scandal

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The 2016 South Korean political scandal (Korean: 박근혜-최순실 게이트, Park Geun-hye-Choi Soon-sil gate) involves the influence of Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman-esque cult leader Choi Tae-min, over president Park Geun-hye.[1][2][3][4]

Widespread coverage of this South Korean political scandal began in late October 2016.[5][6] On November 29, Park offered to begin the process of removing herself from power.[7] On December 9, Park was impeached, and then Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn became the acting president.[8] On December 21, a Special Prosecution Team led by Park Young Soo began to investigate the Choi Soon-sil scandal.[9][10] On March 10, 2017, The Constitutional Court of Korea ruled to uphold the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye. All 8 judges agreed that President Park abused her power. A new election was held 60 days after with Moon Jae-in, a member of the Democratic Party of Korea, winning over 41% of the popular vote in the election.[11]

Background

Choi Soon-sil

Choi Soon-sil has known President Park since the 1970s when Choi's father, Choi Tae-min, offered to console and advise Park as she and the family was still grieving for the assassination of then first-lady Yuk Young-soo.[12] Choi at that time claimed that the shamanic leader can channel communication to her dead mother.[13] Choi Soon-sil is alleged for dictating or at the least influencing her decisions on everything from President Park's handbags to state affairs.[14][15] Choi has been indicted for extorting bribes, abusing power illegally and leaking classified documents.[16] Choi is also accused of having influenced Ewha Womans University to change their admission criteria in order for her daughter Chung Yoo-ra to be given a place there.[17]

Media report

Several news media including JTBC and Chosun Broadcasting Company reported that Choi, who has no official government position, had access to confidential documents and information for the president, and acted as a very close confidant for the president. Media outlets reported that Choi and President Park's senior staff members, including both Ahn Jong-bum and Jeong Ho-sung, have allegedly used their influence to extort 77.4 billion($60 million) from Korean chaebols—family-owned large business conglomerates—and set up two culture- and sports-related foundations, Mir and K-sports foundations.[18][19][20]

Arrests

On November 6, 2016, top presidential aides Ahn Jong-bum and Jeong Ho-sung were arrested for abusing power and aiding Choi.[21][22] The Supreme Prosecutors' Office of Korea (SPO), in laying charges against Choi and two former presidential aides, have alleged that President Park colluded with the three in certain criminal activities. The president will be questioned by prosecutors, the first time this has occurred with a serving South Korean president.[23][24][25]

On December 31, a chief of the National Pension Fund and former health & welfare minister Moon Hyung-pyo was arrested for pressuring the state fund to back a major merger deal for Samsung C&T.[26]

On January 2, 2017, Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, was arrested in Denmark for staying in the country illegally.[27][28]

On January 3, Ewha Womans University professor and renowned writer Ryu Chul-kyun (pen name Yi In-hwa) was arrested for doing the homework of Chung Yoo-ra.[29]

On January 11, former chief of admissions at Ewha Womans University Namkung Gon was arrested for perjury charges.[30]

On January 12, former Culture Minister Kim Jong-deok and two other former senior officials were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the blacklisting.[31]

On January 18, former dean of Ewha Womans University college of science and industry convergence Kim Kyung-Sook was arrested for charges of granting special admission for Chung Yoo-ra.[32][33]

On January 21, Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun was arrested for drawing up a blacklist of cultural figures critical of President Park. Former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-Choon was also arrested for masterminding the blacklist containing 10,000 cultural figures considered "left-leaning" who were critical of President Park.[34][35][36] Ewha Womans University Professor Lee In-sung was also arrested.[37]

On February 15, former Ewha Womans University president Choi Kyung Hee was arrested over charges of granting admission and grading favors to Chung Yoo-ra, a daughter of Choi Soon-sil.[38]

On February 16, vice president of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong (JY Lee), was arrested on bribery charges. Mr. Lee is accused of paying $36 million in bribes to Choi Soon-sil, in return for political favors.[39][40]

Parliamentary hearing

On 6 December, chiefs of South Korea's major conglomerates (chaebols) came to the National Assembly to attend the first parliamentary hearing on the scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil. It happened for the first time since 1988.[41] Participants included Samsung Electronics Vice Chair Lee Jae-yong, Hyundai Motor Chair Chung Mong-koo, Lotte Group Chair Shin Dong-bin, SK Group Chair Chey Tae-won and the heads of CJ, LG, Hanwha and Hanjin, The Federation of Korean Industries.[42] In the hearing, presidents of the chaebols told the parliament that they were not seeking favours when they made contributions to two foundations at the heart of a scandal that appears poised to bring down President Park Geun-hye.[43]

On 7 December, President Park's former aides, including ex-chief of staff Kim Ki-choon and former Vice Culture Minister Kim Jong, testified in the 2nd parliament hearing about suspicions that Choi Soon-sil meddled in government affairs.[44]

On 14 December, Special Committee of the parliament held 3rd hearing, focusing on solving the mystery surrounding President Park’s 7-hour public absence on the day of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking.[45]

On 15 December, the Special Committee held 4th hearing to question the allegations over Mir and K-Sports foundation and how Chung Yoo-ra cheated her way through Ewha Womans University. Jeong Hyun-sik, a former K-Sports head and former Ewha Womans University president Choi Kyung-hee and other affiliated people testified in the hearing.[46]

On 22 December, a 5th hearing was held to question former Presidential Secretary Woo Byung-woo and former presidential nurse Cho Yeo-ok.[47][48]

On 26 December, special committee members of National Assembly held 6th hearing in a prison and met Choi Soon-sil in her detention cell as she refused to attend a parliamentary hearing continuously. She denied most of her allegations over the influence-peddling scandal.[49][50]

On 9 January 2017, a 7th hearing was held to question Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, former chief of admissions at Ewha Womans University Namkung Gon, K-Sports Foundation Chairman Chung Dong Chun and a staffer at the presidential security office Ku Soon-sung. The hearing confirmed that blacklist for left-leaning artists existed.[51][52]

Public apology and presidential approval rating falls

Park Geun-hye's presidential approval ratings fell to as low as 4% - Gallup Korea
Park Geun-hye Approval ratings by age

On October 25, 2016, President Park publicly acknowledged her close ties with Choi and apologized to the public. On October 28, Park dismissed key members of her top office staff while her approval ratings fell to 5%. Her approval rating ranged from 1 to 3% for Korean citizens under 60 years of age, while it remained higher at 13% for over 60 years age group.[53] It was the worst ever presidential approval rating in the Korean history and even lower than the 6% approval rating of former President Kim Young-sam, who was widely blamed for failing the Korean economy, which eventually led to Asian Financial Crisis.[54][55] On November 4, President Park apologized for the second time. On November 29, Park offered to resign as President and invited the National Assembly to arrange a transfer of power. The opposition parties rejected the offer, accusing Park of attempting to avoid the process of impeachment.[56]

Protests

The revelations about the relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil caused mass demonstrations in Seoul.[57][58] Protesters called for the resignation of Park Geun-hye.[59] On November 12, more than 1 million citizens participated in the protests at Gwanghwamun Square close to presidential residence demanding President Park's resignation or impeachment.[60] On November 19, another 1 million citizens participated in the national protest after President Park refused to help the investigation of her abuse of power.[61][62] On November 26, more than 2 million citizens participated in the protest, calling for the resignation of President Park.[63] Protests went on, and on January 21, 2017, a 13th protest was held in Seoul with more than 200,000 attendees.[64]

Impeachment process

On December 5, 2016, three opposition parties agreed to introduce a joint impeachment motion against President Park Geun-hye. The motion, which was signed by 171 of 300 lawmakers, was put to a vote on Friday, 9 December 2016, and passed with 234 out of 300 votes, a tally much greater than the required 2/3 majority and which included many of Park's own ruling party.[65]

Court hearing and trial

On December 19, Choi Soon-sil attended the first hearing in the trial of President Park in Seoul District Court. In the first hearing, prosecutors say Choi used their relationship to pressure companies to donate to two foundations, and siphoned off money for personal use. However, she denies the allegations that she influenced the president.[66][67]

On January 5, 2017, constitutional court began its first trial regarding President Park's impeachment.[68] On January 16, 2017, Choi Soon-sil testified herself in the Constitutional Court and denied any wrongdoings.[69][70] The Constitutional Court declared that it will hold the final pleading from President Park on Feb. 24, suggesting that the court will make a decision on the impeachment trial before March 13. [71]

On March 10, the court issued a unanimous ruling, confirming the impeachment proposal and removing President Park from office.[72]

Arrest of Park Geun-hye

On 30 March 2017 the Seoul Central District Court issued a warrant for Park's arrest on corruption charges. She was arrested later that day.[73]

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