Often referred to by the media as “Puppygate,” the story of South Korea’s first female president’s impeachment is a wild ride from start to finish.
Park Geun Hye served as the 11th president of South Korea from 2013-2017. She was not only the first female to be elected as the South Korean president but also the first woman in the entirety of East Asia to be elected as the head of a state. But the cause for the downfall of a woman of this magnitude was just a little puppy.
The central figures in this story are three people. Apart from President Park, there is Ko Young Tae, a former Olympic gold-medalist fencer, and Choi Soon Sil, a close confidante of the president. It all started when Mr. Ko, who had started his own handbag and clothing company “Villomillo”, met Ms. Choi.
A friend of Mr. Ko once asked him to bring some of his latest products to a designated place for a mysterious client. Later he realized that it was Ms. Choi. She then became a frequent customer of Villomillo, and some of the items she bought with her own money ended up in President Park’s possession as well. In fact, Villomillo got a huge boost in sales and reputation once the president was seen sporting a bag by the brand in 2013.
According to Mr. Ko, Choi Soon Sil ended up purchasing around 40 luxury bags from him, made of crocodile leather and ostrich skin, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Though Mr. Ko strongly denied the allegations of being Ms. Choi’s lover, he admitted that she trusted him to a great extent.
This trust was betrayed in the end, though. Mr. Ko ended up revealing the illegitimate access Ms. Choi had to presidential matters through her extremely close relationship with President Park. But what made things turn sour? Well, this is where the puppy comes into the picture.
In 2014, Ms. Choi asked Mr. Ko to take care of her daughter’s puppy while she was away. Mr. Ko agreed but then left the puppy in his apartment and went golfing. When he came back home, he saw Ms. Choi in his house, furious that he had left the puppy alone. The two had a bitter fallout over the matter. Mr. Ko stated, “She treated me like a slave, swearing at me many times.” Offended by this behavior, he started looking for a way to avenge his insults.
Mr. Ko began to collect CCTV footage of Ms. Choi mistreating presidential aides and other pieces of evidence that revealed that President Park and Ms. Choi were abusing the authority of the former’s title and position. After handing them over to the press, Mr. Ko also revealed that Ms. Choi also used to edit the presidential speeches of Park Geun Hye and the police eventually found evidence supporting that claim as well.
These revelations snowballed into large-scale corruption investigations against the president and Ms. Choi. Public outrage reached an all-time high, demanding President Park step down. Though the president denied the allegations of corruption in court, she admitted that Ms. Choi had an inappropriate amount of access to government decision-making, including her speeches.
The abnormal amount of influence Choi Soon Sil had on the president had its roots back in the 1970s when Ms. Choi’s father, a shady quasi-religious figure named Choi Tae Min, befriended her father, Park Chung Hee, who was the third president of South Korea. After Park Chung Hee’s assassination, Park Geun Hye allegedly found refuge in Choi Tae Min’s religion and treated him like a father figure. The influence he had on Ms. Park was then passed down from father to daughter.
The investigation found Ms. Choi guilty of corruption and extorting money from several big businesses. The then de facto head of Samsung was also embroiled in this issue. In 2017, President Park was impeached, and she was arrested in 2018, with a 24-year jail sentence for corruption.
Mr. Ko was hailed as a public hero for whistleblowing this corruption, even though he admitted that he never calculated his moves. In 2021, former president Moon Jae In pardoned Park Geun Hye’s sentence because of her deteriorating health and to “overcome unfortunate past history, promote people’s unity and join hands for the future.“