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South Korea’s presidency ‘on the brink of collapse’ as scandal grows

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Protesters wearing masks of the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, perform Saturday before a candle-lit rally.
Protesters wearing masks of the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, perform Saturday before a candle-lit rally.JUNG YEON-JE

TOKYO — South Korea's president is engulfed in a political scandal with plotlines straight out of a soap opera: rumors of secret advisers, nepotism, and ill-gotten gains, plus a whiff of sex. There's even a Korean Rasputin and talk of a mysterious clique called the ''eight fairies.''

Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president and daughter of the military dictator who turned the country into an industrial powerhouse, is facing the biggest challenge of her turbulent tenure.

The essence of the scandal is this: It has emerged that Park, notoriously aloof even to her top aides, has been taking private counsel from Choi Soon-sil, a woman she's known for four decades. Despite having no official position and no security clearance, Choi seems to have advised Park on everything from her wardrobe to speeches about the dream of reunification with North Korea.

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Calls for her resignation — and even impeachment — are resonating from across the political spectrum, and her approval ratings have dropped to a record low of 17 percent, according to two polls released Friday.

On Friday, Park directed all of her top advisers to resign en masse, with her spokesman saying a reshuffle would take place, the Yonhap news agency reported. Kim Jae-won, senior presidential secretary for political affairs, told a parliamentary session that Park's chief of staff had already stepped down.

It's not clear, however, whether it will be enough.

''Park Geun-hye's leadership is on the brink of collapse,'' said Yoo Chang-sun, a left-leaning political analyst. Shin Yool, a right-leaning professor at Myongji University, called it the ''biggest crisis'' since South Korea was founded 70 years ago. ''The president has lost her ability to function as leader.''

Choi is the daughter of the late Choi Tae-min, who was a kind of shaman-fortune teller described in a 2007 cable from the US Embassy in Seoul as ''a charismatic pastor.'' Locally, he's seen as a ''Korean Rasputin'' who once held sway over Park after her mother was assassinated in 1974.

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''Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result,'' read the cable, released by WikiLeaks.

Park has strongly denied any improper relationship.

But South Korean media have uncovered evidence that, they contend, shows that Choi Soon-sil wielded undue influence over the president.

JTBC, a television network, said it had found a tablet computer that contained files of speeches the president had yet to give, among other documents.The younger Choi is said to have edited the landmark speech that Park gave in Germany in 2014, laying out her vision for unification with the North. The Hankyoreh newspaper wrote that actual presidential aides ''were just mice to Choi's cat.''

She is also rumored to have created a secret group called ''the eight fairies'' to advise the president behind the scenes.

TV Chosun, the channel belonging to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, aired a clip showing Choi overseeing the making of an outfit for Park, ''raising doubt whether Park made any decision at all without Choi,'' the paper said.

South Korean media have been full of Photoshopped graphics to illustrate the relationship, including one showing Park as a puppet and Choi Soon-sil pulling her strings.

Meanwhile, investigators are looking into allegations that Choi siphoned off money from two recently established foundations that collected $70 million from the Federation of Korean Industries, a big-business lobby with members including Samsung and Hyundai.

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