Choi-gate touches Sewol sinking

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Choi-gate touches Sewol sinking

The mystery surrounding the seven hours of President Park Geun-hye’s disappearance on the day of Sewol ferry’s tragic sinking in April 2014 resurfaced Friday as media reports suggested that she failed to properly respond to the accident because she was undergoing cosmetic surgery.

“Some media reported allegations that the president was receiving cosmetic surgery for seven hours at the time of the Sewol sinking, but that is groundless,” presidential spokesman Jung Youn-kuk said Friday. “We checked it directly with President Park and that is not true.”

The ferry, carrying 476 people, mostly high school students on a field trip, capsized on its way from Incheon to Jeju on the morning of April 16, 2014, resulting in the deaths of 304 people.

Park received the initial briefing about the incident in a written report at 10 a.m. but did not host any meeting throughout the day to cope with the situation. At 5:10 p.m., she showed up at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters and said, “I was told that the students were wearing life vests. Is it hard to find them?”

The Park administration’s slow and ineffective responses to the tragedy invited much criticism.

“We also checked with the Presidential Security Service and no outsider or hospital vehicle visited the Blue House,” Jung said Friday. “The president was working at the Blue House as usual. She received 15 briefings about the Sewol accident from the National Security Office and the senior political secretary’s office.”

Park’s seven hours became a mystery because the Blue House had initially refused to say where she was and what she was doing. Kim Ki-choon, then presidential chief of staff, said before the National Assembly on July 7, 2014, that he had no information about Park’s whereabouts during the seven hours. The Presidential Security Service also refused to disclose any information.

While the Blue House kept silent about the mysterious seven hours, Tatsuya Kato, then Seoul bureau chief of the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun, wrote in August 2014 that Park was secretly meeting a recently divorced former aide, Chung Yoon-hoi, outside the Blue House. Chung is the ex-husband of Choi Soon-sil, Park’s lifetime friend, who is at the center of an unprecedented abuse of power scandal. Kato was prosecuted on charges of defaming the president for his controversial piece, but was later acquitted.

Another rumor said Park was hosting a shamanic ritual at the Blue House to commemorate the late Choi Tae-min, father of Choi Soon-sil and Park’s mentor. The late Choi, a cult leader, died on May 1, 1994, and the ritual was to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, according to the rumor.

“There are rumors that I am being controlled by a religious cult and that a shamanic ritual took place at the Blue House,” Park said on Nov. 4. “I want to say clearly that is not true.”

While the media focused on Choi’s alleged control over Park, a series of reports were made this week to revisit the seven hours on the day of the Sewol sinking. Earlier this week, local media raised the suspicion that Park’s face appeared to be swollen because of cosmetic surgery. Quoting medical professionals, the report said the skin tightening procedure requires anesthesia and takes about seven hours to recover. JTBC, a TV network of the JoongAng Ilbo, also reported an antiaging clinic worker’s remarks that Choi had visited the clinic and picked up medication for injections, which requires prescriptions, on behalf of Park. The informant said the practice continued after Park took the office in February 2013.

“What did the president do, with whom, while our children were dying from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on April 16, 2014?” Rep. Kim Young-joo of the Minjoo Party of Korea said Friday during the main opposition party’s leadership meeting. “She must answer directly before the people.”

Kim added, “If she had failed to perform her constitutional duty to protect the people’s lives just by one second, not even the seven hours, she must apologize. We are demanding the truth not because of curiosity. We are asking if President Park, who holds the highest responsibility to protect the people under the constitution, fulfilled her duty.”

At the National Assembly, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-an also faced the question about Park’s missing seven hours by Minjoo Rep. Song Young-gil. The lawmakers held an emergency questioning session with government officials over the Choi scandal.

“I was told that she was working at the Blue House,” Hwang said. Hwang was not the prime minister at the time; he was the minister of justice when the Sewol sinking took place.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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