‘Choi-gate’ scandal snowballing

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‘Choi-gate’ scandal snowballing


Left: Widec Taunus Hotel, 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) northwest of Frankfurt, was purchased by Widec Sports in May, a shell company co-owned by President Park Geun-hye’s longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil and her 20-yer-old daughter Chung Yoo-ra. Right: Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye’s longtime friend, is suspected to have bought the house in the picture near Widec Taunus Hotel outside Frankfurt. [CHA SE-HYEON]

A controversy over whether President Park Geun-hye’s longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil strong-armed tens of billions of won from companies to fund two foundations took a new turn with a revelation that Choi purchased two houses in Germany and an 11-room hotel near Frankfurt.

Choi purchased a hotel through a shell company in May, a house near it and another house near a horse-riding school, which may have been attended by her daughter Chung Yoo-ra, a dressage athlete, according to the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chung was said to have used her shell company Widec Sports, set up in Germany and co-owned by herself and her 20-year-old daughter Yoo-ra, to acquire the properties in Germany. The company purchased the three-star Widec Taunus Hotel, about 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) northwest of Frankfurt, in May.

The source of the funds used to acquire the properties remains unknown.

The previous owner of the hotel, interviewed by the JoongAng Ilbo, said Choi bought a house near the hotel and another in Brombach.

The hotel is registered as the headquarters of Widec Sports and Blue-K, another shell company suspected to be run by Choi. The hotel was closed with no trace of Choi and her daughter on Thursday.

The latest revelations involving Choi and her daughter deepen an alleged influence-peddling scandal implicating one of President Park’s closest friends.

Choi is suspected of using her connection to the president to pressure companies to make contributions worth 77.4 billion won ($68.1 million) to launch two nonprofit cultural and sports foundations: the Mi-R and K-Sports foundations. It is suspected that some of the funds raised for the two foundations were funneled into shell companies established by Choi and her daughter in Germany, which may have been used for the purchases of the hotel and the two houses.

The hotel is estimated to be worth between 1.5 and 2 billion won.

The Mi-R Foundation received 48.6 billion won in donations from 19 conglomerates within two days of its launch last October; the K-Sports Foundation raised 28.8 billion won within six days of its launch in January. That impressive achievement sparked speculation that Choi leveraged her relationship with President Park to solicit donations.

It has been reported that the K-Sports Foundation chose Widec Sports to promote sports programs ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. Reportedly, K-Sports dispatched officials to Germany to help Choi and her daughter settle in Germany. The daughter was a gold medalist in horse riding in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

Another report by broadcaster JTBC this week suggested Choi was involved in drafting President Park’s speeches, which suggested greater clout in the Park administration than previously known. The Blue House furiously denied the report, with its spokesman asking “Does it even make sense?” in response to the report on Thursday.

The opposition is demanding a thorough investigation into Choi’s finances and how two non-profit foundations amassed 77.4 billion won in corporate donations at a time of economic uncertainty. Critics of the Park administration claim the two foundations were established to support Park after her presidency ends.

Choi is the daughter of Park’s former mentor, pastor Choi Tae-min. Choi Soon-sil, four years younger than Park, is reported to have a close relationship with Park dating back to the 1970s, when Park was acting as first lady to fill in for her late mother, who was assassinated in 1974.

Minjoo Party Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae Friday called the scandal “Choi Soon-sil gate” and described it as a clear abuse of power. Minjoo floor leader Woo Sang-ho demanded a special prosecutor’s investigation into the case.

As the scandal snowballed, prosecutors questioned former and incumbent officials of Mi-R and K-Sports Friday to see whether there were irregularities in the establishment of the foundations and to determine Choi’s role. A prosecutor involved in the case said four to five prosecutors took on the case.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office assigned the case to the 8th Criminal Affairs Department, a team that normally handles low-profile cases, and the assignment has drawn a backlash from the opposition Minjoo and Peoples’ parties.

The opposition is calling for a special investigation independent of pressure from the Blue House.

In a separate but related scandal, Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra, a dressage athlete, was accused of having enjoyed special privileges at Ewha Womans University. The school was accused of admitting Chung unfairly and changing school regulations to meet her needs. Facing a student protests that showed no sign of abating, Ewha’s president Choi Kyung-hee resigned Wednesday, becoming the first president to step down in its 130-year history.

But she denied any special treatment of Chung.

On Thursday, President Park denied that the two foundations were meant to be her personal piggy banks after her presidency ends, saying there was “no reason to do so,” during a Blue House meeting.

Affected by the ongoing scandal, Park’s approval rating hit an all-time low of 25 percent in a poll by the pollster Gallup Korea of 1,018 adults nationwide conducted between Tuesday and Thursday.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]
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