SEOUL, South Korea — She is probably the most loathed 20-year-old in South Korea, the privileged daughter of the woman at the center of a political scandal that brought down a president.
After several months in detention in Denmark, Chung Yoo-ra returned to her home country in a hoodie and handcuffs Wednesday to be questioned about bribery allegations involving corporate giant Samsung as well as her studies at a prestigious Korean university. Prosecutors also hope her extradition will provide them evidence to expand their case against former President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in March and is now being tried on charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power.
“Speaking for myself, I feel wrongfully accused,” Chung told a throng of journalists at Incheon International Airport amid a barrage of camera flashes.
She was then escorted to a prosecution office in Seoul for questioning about the corruption scandal that centers on Park and Chung’s mother, Choi Soon-sil, a longtime confidante of the former president.
Some of the reasons for the anger swirling around Chung:
Chung is the only child of Choi, who has been charged with taking tens of millions of dollars from companies in bribes and through extortion and also manipulating state affairs from the shadows during Park’s presidency. Her parents are divorced and her father, Chung Yoon-hoe, was Park’s top aide for more than a decade before she became president in 2013.
Chung was part of the South Korean squad that won the team equestrian gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games and had been training in Germany, living there with her infant son and mother, when the corruption allegations emerged last October.
Choi returned to Seoul to face the investigation, while Chung sought refuge in Denmark. She was arrested in the northern city of Aalborg in January and fought extradition, but a Danish court ruled in favor of South Korean prosecutors.
Chung told reporters at the airport on Wednesday that she didn’t know any key details about the corruption scandal or her mother’s dealings with Park. She said she plans to eventually bring her infant son, who is still in Denmark, to South Korea, but didn’t say when.
“My baby spent too much time without a family member there, so I thought it would be better for me to quickly relay (to investigators) my position and solve the problem by eliminating misunderstandings,” she said.
Chung was being investigated not far from a Seoul court where her mother stood trial and reportedly pleaded with the “people of the nation” to forgive her daughter, who she said was “not really a bad kid.”
“I feel more pain in my heart today because my daughter took the difficult road back home,” local media quoted Choi as saying.
The Samsung link
Prosecutors have alleged that Ewha Womans University admitted Chung despite questionable qualifications and granted her academic favors because of her mother’s presidential ties. Crucially, they may also question Chung over allegations of bribery between Park and corporate giant Samsung.
According to prosecutors, Park colluded with Choi to take about $26 million in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from Samsung and other large companies. Prosecutors say the bribery included $7 million Samsung provided to a sports consulting firm controlled by Choi that financed Chung’s equestrian training in Germany.
Prosecutors believe Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, who has also been arrested, sponsored Choi’s family in exchange for Park’s support of a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that allowed Lee to promote a father-to-son transfer of corporate wealth and leadership at the group.
Park and Choi have denied the bribery accusations in court. Lee has also denied using the payments to win support for the merger, saying Samsung was just responding to Park’s requests to support culture and sports.
Chung told reporters at the airport that she never thought she was getting preferential treatment from Samsung. “My mother told me that Samsung was planning to support six equestrian athletes, and I thought I was just one of them,” she said.
The allegations that Chung was sponsored by Samsung and received academic favors helped drive the popular anger that led to Park’s ouster.
Students at the university demonstrated for days, demanding to know why Chung was given good grades for classes she did not attend. Many students were also among the millions who protested against Park for weeks. They were angry that Chung got a free pass into an elite school because of her wealth and connections, while others navigate the country’s hyper-competitive school environment on their own.
Young people were also enraged about what Chung reportedly wrote on Facebook in 2014: “Blame your own parents for not having what it takes. Don’t ask for rich parents to do this and that for you. Money is also a form of competitiveness.”
The Education Ministry ordered Ewha to cancel Chung’s enrollment after concluding that the school had manipulated its admissions process to accept her. Former school president Choi Kyung-hee is now on trial over her alleged role in providing Chung with favorable treatment.
“We invest blood and sweat into our studies to get into a good school, and it’s disheartening to see how everything was so easy for Chung,” high school student Moon Jeong-ju said at a November protest.
In comments that would surely stoke further anger, Chung told reporters at the airport that she was never really interested in receiving higher education and only entered Ewha on her mother’s persistence.
“Of course I accept them canceling my enrollment — I didn’t even go to school,” she said. “I never wanted to go to college and I didn’t even know what my major was.”
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