'Sad thoughts trouble my sleep at night," said South Korea's President Park Geun-hye. "I realise that whatever I do, it will be difficult to mend the hearts of the people, and then I feel a sense of shame."

And so she should, but it's also hard not to feel some sympathy for her. This isn't your usual political corruption case. She never benefited from her actions.

Despite Park's televised apology, the opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her, and anti-Park protests continue daily. As a sitting President, she cannot be prosecuted, but prosecutors are to question her.

They also interviewed senior officials at Samsung, Hyundai and Korean Air about claims they were pressured into donating millions of dollars to foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of Park. Even if the claims are true (and they probably are) Park merits more pity than anger. She couldn't really help it.


She was only 9 when her father, General Park Chung-hee, seized power in 1961. She was 15 when North Korean special forces infiltrated Seoul and began an assault that got within metres of the presidential Blue House. And she was 22 when an assassination attempt on her father miscarried and killed her mother, Yuk Yeong-su, instead.

It was then that pseudo-Christian cult leader Choi Tae-min, who had set up his own religious group known as the Church of Eternal Life, befriended the grief-stricken and isolated young woman.

Choi became her mentor, a relationship that became even closer after her father was also assassinated in 1978. She also grew close to Choi's daughter, Soon-sil - and that bond persisted even after Choi Tae-min's death in 1994.

Meanwhile Park was elected to her now democratic country's National Assembly in 1998 - but her top aide was Choi Soon-sil's ex-husband. She has been in the Choi family's clutches for her entire adult life, and they really hit the jackpot when Park won the presidency in 2012.

Ironically, South Korean voters chose Park mainly because they thought she would be incorruptible. Every other President since the non-violent democratic revolution in 1987 has been investigated for corruption. If they didn't steal themselves, their immediate families did. Two Presidents went to jail, and one committed suicide after leaving office.

The dictators who came before them had stolen too. It was practically a national tradition. But Park lived modestly, and she had no family to speak of. She had been estranged from her siblings for a long time (because of her relationship with Choi).

South Korean protesters hold up candles during a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul. Photo / AP
South Korean protesters hold up candles during a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul. Photo / AP

Choi had no official position in Park's Government, but she and her rather bizarre inner circle - including her personal trainer, her personal gigolo, and a K-pop musical video director - had direct access to the President. Choi, who had no security clearance, regularly received secret government documents and even edited the President's speeches.

She also used her advance knowledge of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism's budgets to steer her cronies into the right bids for government contracts. And she shook down major South Korean corporations for millions of dollars on the strength of her claimed influence over the President. In total, some US$70 million ($100m) is alleged to have gone to Choi's two "non-profit" foundations.

What triggered Choi's downfall was her attempt to get her not-too-bright daughter admitted to the prestigious Ewha Women's University, claiming she had the President's support. The girl was accepted, but the students protested against this breach of the university's rules.

Choi and her daughter left for Germany - but she left an unencrypted laptop in her Seoul office with all the details of her manipulations. It was found by cable TV network JTBC, and the fat was in the fire.

Choi is probably going to jail, her daughter is not going to university, and President Park is going ... where?

She has 15 months left of her five-year term, but she is finished politically, and that just feels sad.