|Choi Tae-min, known as President Park Geun-hye's mentor and founder of a religious cult, watches Park during a political event in 1977. Park was acting as first lady at the time. / Korea Times file|
The question has been haunting Koreans as evidence mounts concerning Park's mysterious relationship with her longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil.
Choi, 60, a daughter of the late cult leader Choi Tae-min, is suspected of pulling strings in state affairs and illegally profiting since Park took office in February 2013.
Choi's alleged exploitation of her relationship with the President is fueling speculation that Park, who is supposedly the country's most powerful person, has been under the spell of her cultist confidant after becoming a follower of the religious cult.
Choi Tae-min, who died in 1994 at age 82, is believed to have founded Yongsaenggyo in the 1970s by combining differing beliefs in Buddhism, Christianity and an indigenous Korean religion named Cheondoism that rose in the early 20th century.
He had previously been a Buddhist monk and also a Roman Catholic convert.
Calling himself the equivalent of a modern-day Buddha or Dangun, the legendary founder of ancient Korean kingdom Gojoseon, Choi Tae-min claimed that every man was God in the beginning and should strive to win salvation to become God again and live eternally.
The obscure cult leader initially met Park soon after her mother Yuk Young-soo was assassinated in 1974 and she assumed the duties of first lady at age 22 for her father, then-military dictator Park Chung Hee, according to political sources.
It is rumored that he approached Park by telling her that her mother appeared in his dreams and offering to aid her with her mother's support.
Choi Tae-min, who befriended Park despite the 40-year-old age difference, served as Park's mentor until his death.
He helped Park to organize a pro-government volunteer group called Movement for a New Mind, for which then-university student Choi Soon-sil served as its youth leader.
Choi Tae-min, also a former police officer, was from a poor family. But he accumulated an enormous fortune serving as Park's mentor and bequeathed his wealth to his children, according to the sources.
They also said Choi Soon-sil, succeeded her father as cult leader.
|Park Geun-hye, second from left, walks with Choi Tae-min, right, during the foundation ceremony for the 'Crusades to save Korea' in this photo taken on June 21, 1975, at Pai CHai High School in Seoul. / Yonhap|
Choi Tae-min who was married six times is rumored to have had an improper relationship with Park.
Kim Jae-gyu, then-Korean spy chief who assassinated Park Chung Hee in 1979, cited the senior Park's "failure to prevent Choi Tae-min's corrupt activities and keep him away from his daughter," as a reason for assassinating his boss.
In 1990, Park's younger sister Geun-ryong and brother Ji-man filed a petition to then-President Roh Tae-woo concerning a dispute with Choi Tae-min over a non-profit foundation that was set up to commemorate their late parents.
Geun-ryong and Ji-man claimed that the pastor had been manipulating their eldest sister, exploiting the foundation for illicit gains and trying to alienate them.
The President is widely known for keeping her distance from her siblings for years.
Released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Korea reported to its government in 2007 that "Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years." It also called Choi Tae-min a "Korean Rasputin."
A new rumor recently erupted that Park's possible relation to Yongsaenggyo was behind the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014. The country's worst maritime disaster left over 300 passengers, mostly middle school students, dead or missing. The Park government was criticized for its bungled efforts to save the people.
The de-facto owner of the ferry was Yoo Byung-eun, also a cult leader who was believed to have connections with Chung Yoon-hoi, ex-husband of Choi Soon-sil.
Rumors circulated that the people on the ferry were sacrificed in line with the cult's creed and that Park was deliberately negligent in saving the passengers.
Chung and Choi Soon-sil divorced following a scandal in late 2014 that Chung, who served as Park's aide before she was elected President, meddled in state affairs despite having no security clearance.
It is rumored that Choi Soon-sil was displeased with Chung's alleged attempt to wield influence over the President without her approval.