South Korea has been rocked by the revelation that Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a Christian cult leader, had been advising the president on policy matters, editing her speeches (without holding any office), and leveraging their close relationship for influence and personal gain. Choi is also said to have a spiritual hold over the president and has given her advice based on mystical beliefs, including on auspicious colors to wear.
Park’s approval rating has plunged to 5% according to the latest Gallup poll—a record low for a South Korean president and breaching the 6% rating of president Kim Young-sam during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Park offered a deeply emotional apology that referenced her own tragic upbringing. During it, the president did not have her usual confident bearing, and instead looked small, dejected, and diminished.
“Living on my own, I had no one to help me with the many private affairs that needed taking care of, so I turned to Choi Soon-sil, whom I have known a long time for help,” Park said, adding that it was the “loneliness” she felt after cutting ties with her remaining family that drove her to lean on Choi. Park, who has never married, said she distanced herself from her remaining family after she became president “in case any untoward thing were to happen.”
“[Choi] was the person that stood by me during my hardest times, so I had my guard down. Looking back, I now see this all came about because I trusted our relationship and did not scrutinize things carefully,” Park added.
Choi Soon-sil’s father was extremely close to Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee–who presided over a rapid economic boom that lifted millions of Koreans out of poverty. Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his bodyguard in 1979 when Park Geun-hye was 27. Her mother died in a previous assassination attempt on her husband. Because of these events, the current president cuts a deeply tragic figure in Korea, and there is still sympathy for her.
Kim Sun-chul, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Emory University in Georgia, said that since both her parents were killed when she was young, Park Geun-hye “doesn’t have much confidence in herself… and didn’t have much of a social life.”
“There are even parts I can understand. The daughter of a president and an ordinary university student, it’s not a typical meeting, fate, to become friends and stay friends for 40 years, so the two of you must have leaned on each other and helped one another materially,” veteran Korean news anchor Kim Joo-ha said in a letter she read on TV in October (link in Korean). Kim later faced harsh criticism and harassment for her letter, for implying that the president was a victim.
Sympathy for Park is strongest among the elderly in Korea, although even there it is not widespread. Park has a 13% approval rating among people aged 60 and above, the Gallup poll found.
“The older generation lived through the brutal assassination of her parents,” said Katharine Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “It just became part of their daily life, the tragedy that that family went through… it’s not possible for some of the older generation to separate Park Geun-hye and her life from the tragedy that befell her.”