World

This May Well Be The Weirdest Scandal Of 2016

The scandal that’s rocking Seoul has literally everything but the kitchen sink, including fairies, cults, dancing horses, and millions of dollars’ worth of nepotism.

1. Okay, 2016, you’ve outdone yourself. Because for all the weirdness in the world, it’s hard to top what’s going on in the presidential scandal engulfing South Korea right now.

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“But, BuzzFeed,” you ask, “how can a year in which Trump is a thing possibly be topped anywhere in the world?”

OH JUST YOU WAIT.

2. THIS SCANDAL HAS EVERYTHING:

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— Anger over shadowy ties between corporations and the state
— Rampant misogyny
— Millions of dollars’ worth of nepotism
— Dancing horses
— Painful memories of a former dictator whose daughter is currently in office
— And a religious cult leader known as “South Korea’s Rasputin”

3. To really get at the situation, you have to go back to the 1970s when Park Chung-hee was the head of the military junta running South Korea.

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While most people born post-Cold War only know South Korea as the Good Country and North Korea as the Bad Country, the truth is that South Korea spent decades under military rule, supported by the US. (He was assassinated in 1979 by his own head of military intelligence during a late-night booze session. Really.)

4. While Park was in charge, he got pretty close with a man named Choi Tae-min, who was the head of something called the Eternal Life Church. (He called himself a “Future Buddha” to give you a sense of how legit it was.)

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In 1974, Park’s wife, the mother to their daughter, was assassinated. Much the way that the peasant cleric Rasputin — who we all remember from the historical documentary Anastasia — wormed his way into Russia’s royal court at the turn of the last century, Choi told the daughter, 23-year-old Park Geun-hye, that her mother came to him in a dream that compelled him to come to her aid.

Choi served as a mentor to young Park for years, setting up various social programs alongside her and generally being shady AF. When the head of Korea’s intelligence service assassinated her father, one of the reasons given was his inability to shield young Park from Choi.

5. Fast-forward to 2013: Park Geun-hye has stepped out of her father’s shadow and been elected president of South Korea. All things considered she was pretty popular at the time.

Lee Jin-man / AP

6. But little did the people of South Korea know that Choi’s daughter — Choi Soon-sil — was secretly advising Park all along.

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The younger Choi and Park had also met during the 1970s and apparently stayed close throughout the years. Choi’s then-husband also served as Park’s top aide during her time in South Korea’s National Assembly before she was elected president.

7. As it turns out, she kept Choi on as a confidante, letting her edit several important speeches, including one that laid out Park’s plan for eventual reunification with North Korea.

Jung Yeon-je / AFP / Getty Images

When first accused of having close ties to Choi, Park denied it. But local media unearthed a discarded tablet computer with drafts of Park’s speeches on it, complete with red markups and dated days before their delivery.

And it is a big deal, because Choi has no official role in government, no security, clearance, nothing. Park would later say that she gave Choi “documents” while she was president.

8. In recent weeks, opposition lawmakers have also begun to slam Park — who has about a year left in her term — for her connection to Choi and Choi’s use of those ties to enrich herself.

Jung Yeon-je / AFP / Getty Images

Choi has been accused of using her links to pressure businesses into donating $69 million to foundations that she controls.

And, all the more scandalous, Choi allegedly used her connections to get her daughter into Ewha University, one of the top women’s colleges in South Korea. To a lot of South Koreans, this was way more upsetting than the whole money thing because the whole country is obsessed with the whole idea of prestige that comes with getting into a top school. (The president of the university has already resigned in disgrace.)

9. Some of that money was allegedly siphoned off from the foundations to pay for Choi’s daughter — Chung Yoo-ra — to get equestrian training.

South Korean media first began to dig into this scandal because Ewha also reportedly gave extra credit in the admissions process for Chung’s dressage skillz, producing the biggest scandal a horse has ever given to us.

10. Oh, and Choi is also accused of forming a cabal of unofficial advisers to Park dubbed “the Eight Fairies” because sure, why not bring in something so clearly misogynistic into this?

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11. Last Tuesday, Park offered a public apology to the nation for letting Choi edit several of the speeches she’s delivered while in office — but avoiding the corruption charges.

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“To me, it was something that I did out of a pure intent to do things more thoroughly, but regardless of any reason, I am sorry that I caused concern to the people of our nation, caught them by surprise and hurt their feelings,” she said, bowing at the camera.

12. So on Saturday, she fired 10 of her closest aides — including her chief of staff, but sparing her national security advisers — in an effort to tamp down on the outrage.

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Hours later, police raided the Blue House — Korea’s presidential residence — but were turned away before they could complete their search.

13. Neither the on-air apology nor the firings stopped thousands of people from taking to the streets on Saturday, demanding that Park resign over the scandal.

Woohae Cho / Getty Images

14. Then things got even more insane when Choi finally turned herself over to prosecutors on Monday. “Please forgive me,” she called out to reporters gathered around her. “I’ve committed wrongs for which I deserve to die.”

Lee Jin-man / AP

Before then, she’d been camped out in Germany, claiming she was unable to travel due to heart problems. “She will fully cooperate with the prosecutors’ investigation and state as it is,” Choi’s lawyer said on Monday, and she “deeply apologizes” for disturbing everyone. (And she’s apparently changed her name to Choi Seo-won? For some reason?)

15. And if that wasn’t enough, on Tuesday a guy RAMMED AN EXCAVATOR through the gates of the prosecutor office on a mission from a rural South Korean town to kill Choi.

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Prosecutors transferred her to a jail cell in Seoul after that, both because she’s set to be formally charged and for her own safety.

16. Park’s approval numbers have plummeted over the last few weeks, so this may well bring her down. In the meantime, we’re just going to have to wait to see how many more levels of strange this scandal will have.

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Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Hayes Brown at hayes.brown@buzzfeed.com.
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