Choi Soon-sil received a 20-year jail sentence for her part in the impeachment scandal.  Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
Choi Soon-sil received a 20-year jail sentence for her part in the impeachment scandal. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

For playing the central role in a scandal that climaxed with the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye, confidante Choi Soon-sil, 62, was jailed for 20 years, fined US$16.6 million and ordered to return US$6 million she had received in illicit paybacks by a Seoul Court on Tuesday.

In the same case, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and fined US$6.5 million for bribery. Former presidential secretary An Chong-bum got a six-year term and was fined US$92,000. In its judgment, the court also ordered An to return two designer bags he had received as bribes.

Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin at a news conference in Seoul on Oct. 25, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

No figure in any of the multiple corruption scandals that have roiled South Korea’s business and political landscapes over the decades has generated such extraordinary public vilification as Choi, a 62-year-old businesswoman.

Choi’s actions bought millions of protesters onto the streets of central Seoul in what is now called “The Candlelit Revolution” – the biggest demonstrations witnessed since the “People Power” protests that led to Korea’s democratization in 1987. The protests climaxed with the impeachment of then-president Park, who the Constitutional Court found guilty of corruption and unconstitutionally passing power on to Choi, who had no official portfolio, in March 2017.

In addition to overthrowing a president – the first time a national leader had been successfully impeached in South Korean history – the scandal also implicated multiple members of Park’s government, and many of Korea’s highest-profile businessmen, including most notably Lee Jae-yong, the third-generation heir to the Samsung business empire.

Influence, not corruption, sparks public fury

The corruption charges against Choi largely centered around two foundations, ostensibly established to promote Korean sports and culture. Headed by Choi, who leveraged her Blue House connections, these extracted approximately US$70 million from big business.

Yet, since Korea’s first Olympic hosting in 1988, conglomerates have played a significant role in sports and cultural promotions, usually hand-in-hand with government. Hence, corruption was not the original cause of the public outcry.

That bomb was detonated when information leaked out into the media that Choi had edited a number of Park’s speeches. Suspicions snowballed into allegations that Choi was central to national governance.

Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye arrives at court on Aug. 25, 2017.
Photo: AFP/Kim Hong-ji

Public anger focused on the fact that Choi had close access to Park and to presidential-level information, but no elected or official position. The situation led many to believe that Choi, rather than Park, was the real power in the presidential Blue House.

A long-term, but shadowy advisor to Park, Choi was the daughter of the late-leader of a Christian cult – leading to beliefs in some quarters that Choi was a Rasputin-like puppet master who wielded psychological or even supernatural control over Park. These suspicions were bolstered when it was discovered that Park had minimal personal contact with even her own ministers.

Yet the supposed mastermind behind presidential policymaking was hardly a sophisticated operator. Choi lacked even a bachelors’ degree – a glaring handicap in one of the world’s most highly educated nations, where even PhD holders often struggle to get jobs. A shabby-looking “ajumah” (matron, or married woman), Choi reportedly treated her ex-athlete toy boy poorly. He subsequently turned against her, and released incriminating evidence.

Adding massively to Choi’s misfortunes was the discovery that her daughter had been granted preferential entry to the prestigious Ewha Womans’ University due to her mother’s influence and Blue House connections, and had been given a best-of-breed race horse by Samsung.

“Choi, who had a personal relationship with Park, conspired with her in abusing the presidential office to seek personal benefit, thereby undermining the county’s rule of law and its constitutional values,” the judge said at sentencing, according to local media reports.

Harsh sentence bodes ill for Park

Choi’s lawyer vowed to appeal. “This is a heavy sentence bordering on cruelty,” he told local reporters.

Many of Park’s former aides and ministers have also been implicated in the scandal. Due to the soaring emotions raised, Choi’s situation has become acutely sensitive.

One large law firm declined to comment on the sentencing, but a foreign legal consultant working in Korea suggested that the judges in the case were reactive to public feeling, or what has been dubbed, “the law of public opinion.”

“Twenty years for a white-collar crime is exceptional and it is difficult to see the sentence being reduced on appeal, because the court is so obviously conscious of public outrage that someone had to be held responsible,” said Brendon Carr, a senior foreign legal consultant at Seoul law firm Hwang, Hong and Co.

That responsible party is clearly Choi – who extracted the bribes – rather than the parties who offered them.

Shin was given a light sentence and Samsung’s Lee has successfully appealed his five-year jail term in the case. Early this month, he received, instead, a suspended two-and-a-half-year sentence, allowing him to walk free after less than a year behind bars.

Meanwhile, Park herself has been in detention since being booted from office and is on trial. She denies any wrongdoing and claims the charges against her are political vengeance. But although she was only impeached on two charges by the Constitutional Court, she now faces 20 criminal charges and a judgment later this year.

Given the harsh sentence handed down to Choi, and given that most of the charges against her confidante are also levied against Park, the disgraced president’s legal outlook does not look bright.