South Korea

Who is 'Korea's Rasputin' and why can she damage President Park?

Protesters wearing cut-out of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil
Protesters wearing cut-out of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

In South Korea the woman at the centre of a growing political scandal surrounding President Park Guen-hye has been detained after prosecutors said she was "unstable" and could pose a flight risk. So who is "Korea's Rasputin" and what is her relationship with the president?

Advertising
  • What is this scandal about?

Choi Soon-Sil faces allegations of fraud and meddling in state affairs over her friendship with Park. She was interrogated for hours earlier this Monday after she handed herself in, following mass street protests.

Choi, who has been friends with Park for over 40 years, is accused of interference in government policy, despite holding no official post.

The Korean media is potraying Choi as a Rasputin-like figure with an unhealthy influence over Park. There are even lurid reports of religious cults and shamanistic rituals.

There are also suggestions that Choi vetted presidential speeches and was given access to classified documents.

  • What does this mean for President Park?

So far the South Korean president has issued a public apology, acknowledging seeking limited advice from Choi on her speeches.

But she is under pressure from opponents to resign.

"Many political specialists think her stepping down won't help resolve the issue, rather she should stay in her position,"  political expert Noh Jung Sun told RFI. "Alternatively, we could se the appointment of a prime minister that has the powers that the president normally has."

Park carried out a partial reshuffle of her key aides Sunday and is considering calls from the opposition to form a neutral multi-party cabinet to restore public trust.

'I think that she may not step down by her own decision," says Noh Jung Sun. "She will try her best to keep her power. There will be very large scale protests."

  • How has the South Korean public reacted to the scandal?

Very badly. Park's apology did little to appease public anger with mass protests taking place in Seoul and other cities.

"It's very evident that she has lost the public trust," says Daniel Pinkston, a professor with Troy University in Seoul. "I was going around the city and there were people out on the streets protesting. Public opinion polls over the last few days have just been plumetting. She's under 10 percent now."

on Tuesday a man rammed an excavator into a key building belonging to South Korea's prosecution service in Seoul.

The 45-year-old was detained and later told police interrogators that he had carried out the attack in a bid "to help Choi die as she said she committed a deadly sin".

  • Why the anger?

It's not the first time there has been a scandal surrounding a politician in South Korea but the scale of this one could be explained by Park's personality.

"In the past, former presidents have had scandals linked to family members," says Pinkston."In a sense she was elected because she's single, she doesn't have any children and isn't close to her brothers and sisters. People expected her to be clean, so this was quite a surprise."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning