South Korean President Park Geun-hye caught up in extortion Choigate scam

SEOUL,Nov26:South Korean President Park Geun-hye grew up with few close friendships, reared in the gilded cage of the presidential palace as the daughter of a military dictator.

Now, one friendship Ms. Park does have has imperiled her presidency.

The friend, the daughter of a cult leader who once claimed to speak with Ms. Park’s murdered mother, sought to enrich herself through ties to the presidential office, South Korean prosecutors have alleged in an extortion indictment. The friend also received access to classified presidential policy documents, they say.

 The snowballing political drama is paralyzing the government of South Korea, a close U.S. ally, at a time when the Obama administration considers North Korea and its aggressive nuclear strategy to be the top national security priority for the next administration.

Prosecution documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal say that foundations set up by the president’s friend, a 60-year-old woman named Choi Soon-sil, allegedly used her presidential ties to wrest millions of dollars in donations from Korean conglomerates. Prosecutors have raided most of South Korea’s biggest business groups seeking evidence. Some of the money, prosecutors believe, went to pay for Ms. Choi’s affluent lifestyle and her daughter’s equestrian aspirations.

A political scandal linking South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye to a charismatic cult leader and his daughter has prompted hundreds of thousands to demonstrate in the streets.

Both Ms. Park and Ms. Choi deny the accusations. The president, in a tearful televised statement this month, disputed colorful reports in the Korean press that include shamanistic rituals supposedly held in the presidential office. Such claims are a “house of fantasy,” Ms. Park’s lawyer said.

The denials haven’t stemmed a clamor for her resignation. Four mass rallies in four weeks have demanded the president’s ouster, and organizers expect over a million protesters to gather in Seoul on Saturday. In surveys, Ms. Park’s approval rating has sunk to 4%. One poll showed that 80% of South Koreans favor impeaching her.

Choi Soon-sil, left, who is at the heart of a political scandal engulfing Ms. Park, was arrested in Seoul this month.ENLARGE
Choi Soon-sil, left, who is at the heart of a political scandal engulfing Ms. Park, was arrested in Seoul this month. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Opposition parties say they will push for an impeachment vote by early December if Ms. Park doesn’t step down. She has given no indication she will, though she has offered to share power with a new prime minister suggested by the opposition.

Even if she survives the tumult, Ms. Park’s diminished political authority presents risks for the U.S. and an early foreign-policy challenge for President-elect Donald Trump. The U.S. relies on close ties with Seoul to manage dangers presented by a bellicose North Korea. The U.S. has around 28,500 troops based in South Korea.

Ms. Park wants to deploy a sophisticated U.S. missile system next year to defend against North Korea’s advancing nuclear-weapons program. Opposition leaders, by contrast, put priority on closer ties with China, which strongly disapproves of the missile-shield idea, at a time when other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia are tilting toward Beijing. Ms. Park’s domestic opponents also seek to break with Washington by rolling back the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.