Courtroom drama unfolds as Choi’s associates take hot seat
Among the most notable witness was Ko Young-tae, a former associate of Choi Soon-sil and a central figure in exposing the Choi-scandal. During the hearing, he described the relationship between former vice culture minister Kim Chong and Choi, saying the former official was like Choi’s “personal aide,” a remark that shed light on Choi’s far-reaching power in the Park administration. Former vice minister Kim, now indicted on charges that include abuse of power, was once nicknamed “president of culture” for his influence in the culture sector due to his connection to Choi.
Ko, a gold medalist in fencing at the 1998 Asian Games, also revealed that he had supplied around 100 items of clothing and 40 bags for President Park, delivered by Choi, who paid for the garments in cash. Ko’s testimony sparked speculation that if Choi paid for the clothes on behalf of the president, then Park could be charged with bribery.
The former athlete also revealed he had fallen out with the 60-year-old Choi because of her mistreatment of him and her subordinates. Ko told lawmakers of an episode two years ago in which he said Choi was furious at him for leaving her pet dog, which she had asked him to look after for a few days.
“Choi began insulting people as if they were not human beings,” he said.
He also revealed he was behind the filming of footage that shows Choi picking up clothes for President Park in a dressing room accompanied by two presidential aides. The footage, which was broadcast by the cable channel TV Chosun, underscored Choi’s significant influence behind the scenes as it showed Choi treating the two Blue House officials as her own subordinates.
Ko said he had brought the footage to the broadcaster, along with other documents proving Choi meddled in state affairs, to TV Chosun in early 2015. TV Chosun, a TV network arm of the Chosun Ilbo, did not report on the footage until after JTBC’s exclusive report on Oct. 24 about Choi’s tablet computer, which contained presidential speeches.
Many internet users complimented Ko for his straightforward manner, comparing him to other witnesses at the hearing who remained tight-lipped in an attempt to avoid legal trouble.
Cha Eun-taek, a commercial director who is awaiting trial on charges of attempted coercion by making use of his connection to Choi, also confirmed suspicions that Choi was behind the Park government’s decision-making process.
When asked if he thought Choi and President Park shared power, he answered, “I think Choi and Park were on the same level of power.”
He also agreed that Choi’s influence was so significant that she and Park were practically a joint governing body.
“I was asked by Choi in July 2014,” he said, “just about two months after I had first met her, to recommend candidates for culture minister. So I recommended people in the movie and theater industry.”
He said he recommended Kim Jong-deok, who taught him at Hongik University. Cha’s professor, Kim, was appointed by the president to lead the culture ministry the following month. Cha made two other recommendations for high ranking positions, that of presidential senior secretary for education and culture and Korea Content Creative Agency, and they were both accepted by President Park with Choi working as an intermediary.
Jang Si-ho, Choi Soon-sil’s niece and the only Choi family member who attended the meeting Wednesday, said she had no choice but to follow Choi’s order to run a youth center for winter sports, adding it was Choi’s idea to set it up. Jang’s youth center received 1.6 billion won ($1.3 million) from Cheil Industries and 67 million won from the culture ministry in subsidies even though it lacked major achievements, leading to suspicions that the state agency and the corporation made contributions knowing Choi would back the center.
Another breakthrough came when Rep. Park Young-sun pressed former presidential chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, to acknowledge he had known about Choi Soon-sil and her secret relationship with the president. The 77-year-old Kim, known as a legal mastermind who can find legal loopholes anywhere, had previously denied having met with or known Choi — a testimony that drew ridicule.
Kim insisted there are no records of phone calls between Choi and himself, but critics said Kim, a shrewd legal technician, must have used a phone registered under someone else’s name to communicate with Choi. Rep. Park, looking increasingly upset, showed footage recorded in 2007 showing Kim seated before a panel at a party hearing on its candidates running for the party nomination for president.
During the hearing, a moderator mentioned suspicions over then-candidate Park’s qualifications, which included her alleged engagement with Choi Tae-min, a cult leader and Choi Soon-sil’s father, and accusations over the Choi family’s illegal accumulation of wealth and Park’s role in it. Kim was the legal advisor to the Park campaign at the time. Kim, who had insisted he had not even heard about Choi, was visibly shaken upon seeing the video and tried to justify his prior stance.
“I have aged much now,” said Kim. “But as it looks now, I can’t say I have never heard her name. I am sorry,” Kim said, betraying a crack in his defense.
Rep. Park, a former journalist, asked, “Don’t you fear God’s judgment?”
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]