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Long hide-and-seek game begins for Choi Soon-sil

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By Yi Whan-woo

President Park Geun-hye's scandal-ridden confidant Choi Soon-sil is reportedly refusing to return to Korea from Germany where she is in hiding.

The Segye Ilbo, a religious cult-owned newspaper, reported Thursday that she said in an exclusive interview that the time is not "appropriate" to return home although she apologized for the corruption allegations that surround her.

She cited health reasons and concerns for her 20-year-old daughter Chung Yoo-ra, who is believed to be in hiding along with her mother.

This overshadows the prosecution's ongoing efforts to trace her.

The daily said the interview was conducted at a hotel in Hesse, Germany, Wednesday.

Choi said in the interview that she is receiving medical treatment and her daughter is "in a state of mental turbulence" so they needed to stay in Germany for the time being.

"I'm having a nervous breakdown and heart problems. Moreover, I don't know what's going to happen to my daughter if I leave her alone and go back to Korea," Choi said. "I will certainly pay for my misdeeds if there are any, but only after I recover," she added, indicating that the mother and daughter may not return to Korea anytime soon.

Against this backdrop, Cheong Wa Dae urged Choi to come "as early as possible," saying her return was important to reveal the truth.

"She should return quickly, apologize and settle all suspicions surrounding her," presidential spokesman Jeong Yeon-guk said.

Justice Minister Kim Hyun-woong said he is considering "all possible measures" to apprehend her.

"The government is working closely with the German authorities although I can't reveal details due to reasons of confidentiality," he told the National Assembly Legislation and Judiciary Committee.

Kim also said he was considering suspending Choi's passport to make her status that of an illegal alien in Germany and consequently press her to return.

Some sources were still skeptical about Choi's return. They claim that Choi is carrying a large sum of cash to bribe Korean immigrants in Germany as well as other European countries so they will provide her with hideouts.

According to the prosecution, Choi's assets are estimated to be worth 30 billion won ($26.2 million), and include a hotel and three houses in Germany worth 2 billion won.

The sources also pointed out that a key suspect involved in the allegations, Cha Eun-taek, is believed to be in China making it difficult to proceed with the investigation if he refuses to return and cooperate.

Cha, a visual director, reportedly has connections with Choi in managing the Mir Foundation, a non-profit organization for which conglomerates were allegedly forced to raise funds for its establishment in October 2015.

"There are several measures to bring suspects back to Korea, such as suspending their passports, or requesting extradition. But all these measures take time and it's doubtful whether relevant steps can be completed in a timely manner to facilitate the investigation," a source said.

Leaders of the rival parties have demanded the government work to have Choi extradited while questioning the sincerity of her apology.

"It was like seeing her playing in an abruptly-made drama," main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairwoman Rep. Choo Mi-ae said.

Some allegations surrounding Choi include obtaining presidential documents and state secrets from Cheong Wa Dae officials.

Choi, who had a disheveled appearance in the Segye Ilbo photos, repeatedly said she did not know such acts were illegal and also claimed she does not recall her alleged wrongdoings.

"No Korean citizens would buy her nonsense interview," Choo said.

DPK floor leader Rep. Woo Sang-ho asked the prosecution and spy agency to be active in bringing Choi and Cha home, saying, "They should unleash the dogs and pursue the suspects if necessary."

Rep. Park Young-sun, former floor leader of the DPK's precursor the Minjoo Party of Korea, accused the prosecution of "aiding and abetting" Choi.

"I can't believe what the investigators are after considering Choi boldly appeared in a media interview," she said.

Former ruling Saenuri Party Chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung said, "It would be treason to cite her health as an excuse to not return considering the President is in political jeopardy."

Yi Whan-woo

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