THE MOST POWERFUL PERSON IN SOUTH KOREA
To most people, Choi Soon Sil appeared to be just another rich tai tai.
She travelled often, fussed over her daughter, and went for the occasional cosmetic surgery.
She liked shopping too, and thought nothing of dropping millions of won on clothes and shoes and bags per outing.
But could it be that the well-coiffed, manicured 60-year-old was also the most powerful person in South Korea?
No doubt about it, said several former civil servants who worked for President Park Geun Hye at the Blue House.
"When I worked at the Blue House, people told me if you get near Choi Soon Sil ... you will quietly be gone," Mr Cho Eung Cheon, who was a senior presidential secretary in 2013 and 2014, told South Korean Parliament on Oct 18.
"I raised issues about privatisation of public power and opaque decision-making processes so I was kicked out," said Mr Cho, now an opposition lawmaker.
Ms Choi is the daughter of Mr Choi Tae Min, the self-styled pastor who became a mentor to Ms Park after the latter's mother, then the First Lady, was slain in 1974.
All these years, she has been a friend, confidante and secretary to Ms Park.
After the one-time First Daughter became President in 2013, Ms Choi wielded almost unchecked influence, exerting control over Ms Park's policy direction, the hiring of senior government officials, and even what she wore.
Choi Soon Sil had become, it would seem, the power behind the throne.
But all that began to unravel in September 2016, when opposition lawmakers led by Mr Cho Eung Cheon, a former senior Blue House secretary, began to raise inconvenient questions about two non-profit organisations Ms Choi had founded.
The organisations, Mir and K-Sport, were created only months previously, ostensibly by the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), which counts among its members Samsung, Hyundai and other big conglomerates known collectively as chaebols.
It was revealed Mir had managed to raise US$42.8 million (S$60.5 million) and K-Sports US$25.4 million in a matter of days, thanks to generous donations from chaebols including SK Hynix, Hyundai Motor, Samsung Electronics, LG Group and steelmaker Posco.
Reports also surfaced that Ms Choi had purchased properties including a hotel in Germany, using money funnelled from the foundations to two shell companies.
Rumours flew that she had created a cult of her own called the “Eight Fairies” - a team of unofficial presidential advisers - to meddle in the Park administration, including Cabinet appointments and the editing of the President's speeches.
Ms Park, as the rumours went, had even changed the National Intelligence Service seal to an image of a dragon in consultation with the “Eight Fairies”.
President Park's spokesman ridiculed the allegations. Ms Choi had escaped to Germany months earlier with her 20-year-old daughter Yoo Ra, and Yoo Ra's infant son.
She was capable of doing things I thought no one could.K-pop video director Cha Eun Taek. He has been charged with abuse of power, coercion and embezzlement for using his ties with Choi to win lucrative projects from state agencies and private firms
In late October, things became dramatically worse for Ms Choi.
News channel Chosun showed a video of presidential aides kowtowing to her after she apparently gave them orders. She had an advance copy of the President’s itinerary for an overseas trip, the TV station reported.
Another news channel JTBC publicised a cache of documents which seemed to show Ms Choi had access to President Park's speeches between 2012 and 2014, and even edited them.
The documents were found in the same discarded tablet computer that stored memos for Cabinet meetings, schedules, and messages with presidential aides.
Ms Choi denied the tablet was hers — but why was a selfie of her also in the device? She did not say.
Mr Cho, the ex-aide to the president, said Ms Choi even decided what Ms Park should wear.
"Choi was the person who ordered the 3.4 million won (S$4,200) hanbok (traditional Korean dress) that President Park wore at her inauguration ceremony and delivered the clothes to Park in person," Mr Cho said.
“She has also been running personal errands for the President, procuring jewellery and other accessories from Cheongdam-dong (high-end stores).”
Ms Park reportedly gave Choi a generous budget to see to her outfits, but Choi is accused of spending only a fraction of it and pocketing the difference.
A clip has emerged showing Ms Choi’s staff smoking and eating fried chicken while waiting for a tailor to make a suit for the President, even touching the fabric with their greasy fingers.
Ms Park reportedly wore the suit during a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.
Ms Choi had enlisted the help of her husband Chung Yoon Hoi and niece Jang Si Ho to run her alleged vast shadow Cabinet and siphoning machine.
Mr Chung, who married Ms Choi in 1995, served as Ms Park's aide when she was a lawmaker but resigned from the job in 2007.
A document leaked from the Blue House and reported by South Korean media in 2014 alleged that Mr Chung, who held no official position at that time, was running the presidential office and ordering Ms Park's secretaries about.
Mr Chung dismissed the allegation as fabrication. It later emerged that he and his wife had divorced earlier that year (2014).
As for Ms Jang, Ms Choi's niece, she was arrested in November for allegedly embezzling some of the 1.6 billion won (S$1.95 million) Samsung had given to a sports foundation controlled by her.
But Ms Jang denied all accusations against her, saying she was only following orders from her powerful aunt.
It later emerged that Ms Choi's daughter Yoo Ra, had also benefited from her ties to President Park.
Samsung Group heir and top executive Mr Lee Jae Yong admitted the company gave money, including 1 billion won (S$1.2 million) to purchase a champion horse, to help Ms Chung further her equestrian career.
Several other alleged cronies of Ms Choi have also been arrested by police and charged.
One of them is prominent K-pop video director Cha Eun Taek, who once made videos for Gangnam Style star Psy. In November, the 46-year-old was charged with abuse of power, coercion and embezzlement for using his ties with Ms Choi to win lucrative projects from state agencies and private firms.
In December, Mr Cha and other alleged Choi cronies testified in a televised parliamentary probe into the presidential scandal.
Mr Cha said Ms Choi asked him in 2014 to recommend potential candidates for culture minister, a presidential adviser on culture, and the new chief of a government cultural agency. The people he recommended, including one of his uncles, got the jobs by the end of the year.
"I believed she was very close to the President. She was capable of doing things I thought no one could," Mr Cha told lawmakers about Ms Choi.
The exposes did not happen by chance.
Someone close to Ms Choi had filmed footage which shows Ms Choi throwing her weight around presidential aides, and given it to the media.
The same person also tipped off cable news channel JTBC to the fact that Ms Choi had edited President Park's speeches.
That whistleblower is Mr Ko Young Tae, a handsome man 20 years Ms Choi’s junior and apparently, her lover.
Mr Ko is a one-time national fencer who won a gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games. Media reports say he later worked at a host bar in Seoul where female customers can solicit sexual services from male hosts, before morphing into a fashion designer.
Mr Ko said he met Ms Choi in 2012, shortly after Ms Park was elected President. Testifying at the parliamentary probe, he denied having a relationship with Ms Choi.
She insulted me and acted as if her underlings were subhuman.Mr Ko Young Tae, whistleblower and rumoured toy boy of Ms Choi Soon Sil
But he knew things that only an intimate would know. For one thing, Mr Ko was said to have an advance copy of Ms Park’s itinerary for an overseas trip that Ms Choi had received; it indicated what colours the President would wear on which days based on Ms Choi’s recommendations.
Mr Ko said he provided Ms Choi with about 100 items of clothing and up to 40 bags. He claimed he saw Ms Park wearing the clothes and using the bags in public over the years.
He also singled out her treatment of Mr Kim Chong, a former vice-sports minister who was arrested on charges of awarding lucrative contracts to Ms Choi and trying to help her influence preparations for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
"Choi constantly gave orders to Kim... as if he was her personal assistant," Mr Ko told lawmakers.
Ms Choi appeared to be the most powerful person in Ms Park’s government and acted like one, he said.
"She insulted me and acted as if her underlings were subhuman," he added.
On Oct 30, 2016, Ms Choi flew back to South Korea to face the music. She was accosted by hundreds of South Korean journalists as she arrived at the prosecutor's office in Seoul the following day, losing her left shoe in the ensuing scrum.
That shoe was later revealed to be a US$630 (S$890) Prada model.
"I committed a crime I deserve to die for," Ms Choi told the media, using a Korean expression to convey deep remorse. "Please forgive me."
She was arrested, placed in custody, and indicted on charges that include abuse of power, attempted fraud, and bribery.
Prosecutors would later revealed that Ms Choi and her family owned assets and cash worth a total of 273 billion won (S$340 million).
Despite her initial expression of remorse, Ms Choi has dug in her heels and denied wrongdoing.
She has proclaimed her innocence on all the charges in her own trial, and defended President Park in the latter’s impeachment trial in South Korea’s highest court.
But the most dramatic moment in Ms Choi’s fight to clear her name came on Feb 6, 2017, when she had a showdown in court with Mr Ko, her purported lover-turned-betrayer.
In an increasingly emotional confrontation lasting seven hours, she tried to cast doubt on his integrity, while he claimed she saw President Park as a drag and treated presidential aides as if they were her own staff.
Even lawyers acting for Ms Park had argued in the President’s impeachment trial that the fuse of the scandal was lit when the affair between Mr Koh and Ms Choi turned sour.
Meanwhile not even Ms Choi’s own lawyer thinks much of her chances.
Said Mr Lee Kyung Jae: "I told her: 'You are now all alone. No one will protect you, not even the Blue House'.”
Ms Choi was "the alpha and omega of the scandal", a prosecutor told the Seoul Central District Court during her trial. "The very person who created a national crisis which resulted in the country’s first impeachment of a president".
On Feb 13, 2018, the one-time power behind the throne was sentenced to 20 years in prison. "The guilt of the accused is heavy," the judge said.