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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Herald on Feb. 3)

All News 07:05 February 03, 2017

No bounds

--Choi suspected of handpicking ambassadors--

By now, readers should know how powerful Choi Soon-sil, the notorious confidante of President Park Geun-hye, had become. What the independent counsel team’s investigation – and previously a separate probe by the state prosecution – has found so far shows that Choi was involved in a wide range of presidential and state affairs.

Using her close ties with Park – and even virtually working in tandem with the president – Choi allegedly extorted money from conglomerates to finance two foundations under her control. One of the conglomerates, Samsung, offered separate money which eventually benefitted Choi’s daughter and niece – either under pressure from Park and Choi or in anticipation of government favors or both.

It turned out that Choi exerted influence over appointments of senior government officials as well. Investigators found that Choi not only was involved in the vetting process of candidates for senior posts, but even handpicked some of them.

Those who benefited from Choi’s influence included a culture minister, a vice culture minister and a senior presidential secretary for education and cultural affairs. It was bewildering to learn that Choi gave the chairmanship of the K-Sports Foundation to the proprietor of a massage parlor she frequently visited.

So it sounded plausible that Cha Eun-taek, a jailed former associate of Choi, thought that Choi had the same level of power as Park or the two were leading a coalition government. Now new evidence has surfaced that Choi pulled the strings behind even in the appointment of ambassadors.

The independent counsel team said that Choi spread her corrupt tentacles to the foreign service in order to make personal gains through business projects in Myanmar -- one for building a convention center and the other for a coffee franchise.

Investigators suspect that Choi had a 15 percent stake in a Korean firm that planned to participate in the “K-Town project” and attempted to push the Korea International Cooperation Agency to provide 76 billion won ($65.9 million) in its overseas development assistance fund.

It was fortunate that KOICA opposed the project, which, along with the coffee project, eventually fell through.

The independent counsel team said that in order to facilitate the project, Choi allegedly handpicked the current ambassador to Myanmar, Yoo Jae-kyung.
The ambassador, who was questioned by investigators Wednesday, admitted that he took the post at the recommendation of Choi. Investigators said Choi “interviewed” Yoo in March last year and he took the post two months later.

Foreign Ministry officials confirmed that Yoo, a former senior executive of Samsung Electro-Mechanics, was one of the “political appointees” nominated by the Blue House.

In short, Choi saw a chance to make money in a foreign country and had Park name a man she could control as the ambassador to the foreign capital. Indeed, there were no bounds to Choi’s greed and means to satisfy it.

The independent counsel team said a memo investigators found in a notepad of former presidential aide An Chong-bum -- which said “Samsung Agreement” -- led to the uncovering of the Myanmar case.

That means there could be more non-career ambassadors who had been appointed owing to their ties to Choi. In fact, there had been allegations that former Ambassador to Vietnam Jun Dae-joo and a former consul general to Ho Chi Minh City had been appointed with the help of Choi.

The allegations point to the possibility that Choi interfered in the appointments to assist the business of her nephew, who ran a kindergarten in Ho Chi Minh City. The independent counsel team should look into the case and other appointments to see whether Choi exerted her influence on them.

The Foreign Ministry said there are 15 “politically appointed” ambassadors. Some of them, if not all, may have been tied to Choi. They should be ferreted out, for the sake of preventing the recurrence of similar misdeeds by the next president.

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