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South Korea's Choi-gate scandal reveals crisis of democracy

By Christina Okello

A scandal over alleged abuse of power engulfing the South Korean president deepened on Tuesday after the embattled leader was forced to withdraw her nominee for prime minister and give up control of the cabinet. Her close friendship with shadowy figure Choi Soon-sil, which has plunged the country into its worst political crisis in decades.

The woman at the centre of the growing political scandal surrounding President Park Guen-hye is businesswoman Choi Soon-sil.

She has been charged with abuse of power and fraud for using her political connections to force large companies, including Samsung and Hyundai, to donate about 60 million euros to two government-linked foundations.

The affair has hurt Park.

Since reports emerged in October about Choi’s influence at the heart of the government, thousands of South Koreans have been taking to the streets of the capital Seoul to call on her to step down.

"One of the reasons why the South Korean public is so up in arms about all this right now is because they thought with President Park they had a different sort of president, that there would be none of the sorts of scandals they've seen attached to all previous presidents," Hazel Smith, Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Lancaster, told RFI. 

"They're not just protesting against the South Korean president, they're protesting against the whole political establishment, which historically has been very difficult for South Korean publics to hold to account."

Civil society groups such as Transparency International have called for a thorough investigation into exactly how the money donated to Choi's foundations was used, and whether companies received benefits in return.

“One of the companies, which is a big shipping company called Hanjin, it donated just a small amount of money during that time but, as we can see nowadays, the company is collapsing," says Abraham Sumalinog of Transparency International, who claims that firms that did not cough up paid the price.

"Choi Soon-sil was sort of calling this company a lukewarm supporter to her foundation, so in a way, I could say that it could be a form of a bribe, although it's a sort of a forced donation because at that time these companies were also struggling."

For Seyoung Nam of the Korean Lawyers Society, there is no doubt bribery was involved. She also insists Choi Soon-sil was aided by other top government officials, including the president's former senior secretary for policy cooperation Ahn Jong-beom.

"This public officer, Mr Han, who is the president's secretary was unjustly sollicited by a certain organisation called FKI, which stands for Federation of Korean Industries. And because of that sollicitation, those companies raised money and that money was given to these two problematic foundations," explains Nam.

As for the foundations' objective of promoting Korean culture and fostering athletic talent, there is little evidence they even did that, says Sumalinog.

"We cannot find any evidence in terms of cultural promotion and sports in Korea. Well, actually in fact the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, she became an athlete, a horse rider, but she's not really capable, she doesn't have the talent to become one of those good athletes."

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