With Choi Soon-sil Gate shaking the very foundation of the nation after an earthquake had just a few weeks prior in September, the ripples from the revelations of corruption and fraudulence have left an aftershock throughout South Korea. Though the news may have seemed sudden to the general public, the exchanges of wealth and power had left a trail of evidence long before the scandal hit. Specifically, intense probing by the media had pinpointed two foundations serving as the mediums through which a certain medium had garnered wealth and influence over corporate and political arenas of South Korea.
First of the two is Mir Foundation, a culture-germinating organization which aimed to “discover the archetype of Korean culture and art and build upon it to present Korea’s true face to the world”, according to its mission statement. It raked in nearly 48.9 billion KRW just two months into its larval stage, a feat achieved with the generous “donations” by 16 major Korean conglomerates — suspected to have been pressured by government officials — through the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), including household names like Samsung, Hyundai, SK, and CJ. Further investigations also revealed that the establishment of Mir Foundation had been miraculously approved by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) in a single day rather than the usual weeks of government paperwork taken during the application process for a typical applicant.
But typical is the furthest from what Mir Foundation is — in addition to a massive funding and an instantaneous inception, Mir Foundation has since enjoyed remarkable success and acquired significant authority, fueled by additional donations from Korean businesses. Furthermore, the government has not shied from displaying preference for the young organization. The first project Mir Foundation pursued a month into its operation was the assimilation of Korean cuisine into the curriculum of the prestigious French culinary academy École Grégoire-Ferrandi. President Geun-hye Park had sealed the deal for Mir Foundation, including an astute acknowledgement of the project during the “Year of Korea-France Bilateral Exchanges”, a ceremony celebrating the 130th anniversary of Korean-France diplomatic relations, despite the tentative status of the project and the pronounced existence of the more prominent Korean Food Foundation, a public institution funded directly by the Korean government.
Barely three months after Mir Foundation was born, another “non- profit” emerged, named “K-Sports Foundation”. The entity at first glance carried a respectable goal of fostering young, talented Korean athletes through financial support. Once again, K-Sports Foundation enjoyed a hefty contribution of 38 billion KRW from a similar list of enterprises. Surprisingly, four companies “donated” extra 8 billion KRW each, immediately after the initial capital had graced K-Sports Foundation. In the name of sponsoring “obscure” Olympic sports, K-Sports Foundation partnered with Widec Sports, a German, equestrian- based company later discovered to have been administered by a single person – the coach of rider Yoo-ra Chung, Choi’s daughter. Much of the 40 billion KRW had gone to an one-man business whose direct involvement with Choi raises questions about the validity of the investment. The legitimacy of K-Sports further cracked when the chairman of the foundation had been discovered to be the owner of a massage center frequented by Choi.
In accordance with Widec Sports, the critical link between the two seemingly disparate establishments is the numerous paper companies set up to divert the influx of money away from the foundations. Besides Widec Sports, 14 other “ghost companies” had been uncovered in Germany, according to the local news media outlet Taunus Zeitung. The most notorious of such paper companies is The Blue K in Korea, whose foundation was merely a day before that of the K-Sports Foundation. The Blue K had been found to funnel the donations of the foundations to itself, which had been effortless considering the fact that both Mir and K-Sports foundations are run by associates of Choi.
The most alarming detail, however, is the deep involvement of the government in the far-reaching network of exploitation. The evidence linking the government with the embezzling activities of Mir and K-Sports foundations were first uncovered by TVChosun in July, with suspicions of Jong-Beom Ahn, the previous Senior Secretary of Economic Policy at the Blue House directly appointed by President Park, twisting the arms of the conglomerates to donate to the two organizations. The Senior Secretary of Civil Affairs Byung-Woo Woo, who had been implicated with accusations of corruption within the Prosecutor’s Office, faced allegations of manipulating financial institutions into the favor of the foundations. With the close ties of the two secretaries — both politically and personally — with President Park, the implications of their actions delivered a severe blow to the credibility and transparency of the Korean government under President Park’s administration.
So who is the mastermind behind these organizations? The answer lies in the woman Koreans all know and despise, a woman who has never held a public office, never been seen by the public, and never been elected democratically: Soon- sil Choi. Scrutinizing her political history will be the key to understanding the extent of her influence amidst Korean politics.