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The president, the shaman and the scandal engulfing South Korea

Park Geun-hye was swept to power four years ago pledging to overhaul South Korea’s biggest family-owned companies. Today, the president stands accused of conspiring to extort millions of dollars from those same corporations, amid a sprawling scandal that is paralysing the Asian country.

The offices of big-name corporates from Samsung to Lotte have been raided by investigators, Ms Park’s closest aide has been indicted over alleged abuse of power and the president is battling state prosecutors to avoid scrutiny of her alleged role in the drama.

It is a scandal that is being played out in public, with each day bringing salacious new claims linking the presidential Blue House to shamanistic rituals, slush funds or one of a dizzying array of colourful characters from Seoul’s entertainment industry. At one stage the Korean leader was even forced to deny that she was a member of a cult.

Graft is not new in South Korea. Five of its six directly elected presidents have been ensnared in scandals, while executives from the country’s top family-owned conglomerates, the chaebol, are frequently hauled in for questioning and regularly face trial. Yet this saga is on a different scale.

South Korea is facing what experts call a “compounded crisis”. At a time of faltering economic growth, heightened geopolitical tensions and a series of high-profile corporate problems, the country has found itself leaderless and in disarray. “South Korea is in a state of total crisis,” says Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. “We have intertwined political, geopolitical and economic crises … and no leadership to mend the fractures or drive society.”

Influence peddling

There is a growing sense in the country that Ms Park — its first female leader — has lost her mandate to rule and lacks the strength or conviction to take on the chaebol and carry out the reforms she promised while campaigning for the presidency in 2012.

Her approval rating stands at 4 per cent — down from 63 per cent in 2013 and the lowest ever for a president of the east Asian nation — after weeks of allegations that she had become reliant on a shadowy confidante who influenced a litany of presidential decisions, including key speeches and policy ideas.

The friend, Choi Soon-sil, allegedly used her position to extort tens of millions of dollars from top South Korean companies — a scheme in which, prosecutors say, Ms Park was an active collaborator. Ms Park denies the conspiracy claims. Her lawyer called them “nothing more than ideological reflections of imagination and speculation, ignoring objective evidence”.

Ms Choi was last week indicted on a string of charges, including abuse of authority, coercion and attempted fraud. A hitherto unknown character, she was catapulted into the spotlight when protesting students, aggrieved over preferential treatment given to Ms Choi’s daughter, sparked a wider influence-peddling investigation.

The controversy has triggered a prolonged public outcry. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of central Seoul — the fifth such mass demonstration in as many weeks — to demand Ms Park’s resignation. Further protests are planned.

For South Koreans, the scandal has reignited concerns not only about corruption and transparency but also fears that the country’s hard-won democracy is being subverted by the president, the daughter of former strongman leader Park Chung-hee.

“This is a critical moment,” says Kim Jiyoon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “How the country deals with the situation will determine the path of Korean politics.”

“She is ignoring the entire democratic system we’ve been preparing since 1987,” adds Ms Kim, referring to the year that military rule was replaced by an elected government. Such fears were exacerbated when Ms Park’s lawyer, Yoo Yeong-ha, announced last week that the president would not make herself available for questioning by state prosecutors, despite earlier pledges to do so. One conservative newspaper said she was holding the “government and people hostage”.

Ms Park has refused to resign, forcing opposition parties to tread the politically treacherous path towards constitutional impeachment, which will begin with a vote in parliament in...