Reuters South Korean President Park Geun-hye addresses the nation from the Blue House in Seoul, November 2016.

South Korea's Shamanic Panic

Park Geun-hye's Scandal in Context

For over a month now, South Koreans have been asking a rather unusual question for citizens of a modern democracy: whether their president, Park Geun-hye, could have been under the influence of the supernatural while in office. This question was brought to public attention by the October 24 revelation that Choi Soon-sil, an alleged mudang (shaman) and the daughter of a prominent cult leader, had been given extensive (and illegal) access to the president. On November 20, Choi was indicted for embezzlement, extortion, and abuse of authority; prosecutors identified Park as an accomplice and a criminal suspect in relation to Choi’s indictment.

Choi, a longtime friend of Park, was arrested on November 2 for abuse of authority and fraud. She had reportedly been given access to state secrets and was allowed to exert an influence on policymaking, despite having neither a security clearance nor any official position. Her only credential was that she was a confidante of the president, regularly providing advice on everything from clothes to speechwriting and policy decisions. In response to these allegations, South Koreans have hit the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Park’s approval rating is currently around four percent, and on November 29 she told South Korea’s main political parties to decide among themselves when and how she should vacate office in a way that avoids chaos and disruption.

Rumors that Choi is a Korean Rasputin may be scintillating, yet there is no evidence that she or her deceased father, Choi Tae-min, were ever shamans or sorcerers. The public fixation on their alleged shamanism is due more to the bizarre nature of the scandal, as well as to South Koreans’ general socioeconomic anxiety and distrust of the government, than to any hard proof. At the same time, however, the scandal has revived conversations about the relationship between spirituality and the state that have deep roots in South Korean society.

RUDE CHOI

Park is said to have fallen under the influence of the Chois as a young woman, following the assassination of both her parents—the former dictator Park Chung-hee and his wife, Yuk Young-soo—in the 1970s. In 1974, at the age of 23, Park allegedly had her first contact with Choi Tae-min, a shadowy religious entrepreneur and confidence man who claimed that he could communicate with the spirit of her late mother. The elder Choi soon became a close personal confidante of Park, a position he would retain until his death in 1994, when he was succeeded by his daughter, Choi Soon-sil.

The rumors of Choi Soon-sil’s shamanism largely stem from what is known about Choi Tae-min. In the 1970s, he is thought to have formed a syncretic cult that mixed elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and indigenous Korean religion, while claiming he could heal the sick and see the future. By the time he met Park, in the 1970s, Choi Tae-min had created and was leading the so-called Church of Eternal Life, and said he could hear God’s voice and interpret his will.

The real outrage, however, has been directed at Choi Soon-sil, who is alleged to have used her influence with Park to enrich herself and her family. The South Korean media has bolstered the corruption allegations with evidence of her supposed occult tendencies. For instance, at the venue for Park’s inauguration, Choi Soon-sil reportedly displayed a purse called an obang-nang made from the traditional five-colored fabric (obang-gam), which symbolically evokes blessings and transcendent power of the universe. It is rumored that Choi Soon-sil held shamanistic rituals in the presidential residence and consulted fortunetellers about what Park Geun-hye should wear on her trips abroad to bring her good luck. In a public address since the scandal broke, however, Park stated that no such rituals occurred.

A KOREAN TRADITION

Although it may seem unusual to outsiders, what we know so far of Choi Soon-sil’s interest in fortunetellers and shamanism is by no means unusual in South Korea. Just as people in the United States frequent astrologers or Tarot card readers, many ordinary South Koreans visit shamans to gain psychological relief from insecurity and frustration or just to amuse themselves with friends. For the older generation, it is considered normal to consult a fortuneteller about a proposed marriage, or to pay a professional shaman to end an illness, a streak of bad luck, or some other affliction. And even those who think of shamanism as old-fashioned often consult professional “name-givers” when children are born, so that the characters in the child’s name—Korean names are composed of Chinese characters, each with their own meaning—are chosen auspiciously. The belief is that one’s name shapes one’s fate.

Korea is unique in East Asia for its religious and spiritual hybridity. About 30 percent of Koreans are Christian (mostly Protestant), 23 percent are Buddhist, and a plurality (46 percent) claim to have no religion. Yet in addition to Buddhism and Christianity, Korean culture is deeply influenced by Confucianism and Daoism from China, as well as by shamanism, the indigenous religion of the peninsula, which dates back to the mythical founding of Korea by the mythical hero Tan-gun.

Korean shamanism, like many traditional religions, features a belief in an ongoing relationship between humans and a spirit world inhabited by demons and deceased ancestors. Shamans acted as mediators between these two realms. Despite mixed feelings among today’s South Koreans about shamanism’s legacy, modern scholarship perceives it positively as something that was especially beneficial for women and the oppressed. Traditionally, shamans were overwhelmingly female—women with strong personalities but from poor backgrounds and with little or no formal education. For such women, shamanic duties—speaking in public, leading village rituals, healing the sick, and doling out social sanctions to the high and low alike—were a rare means to female social empowerment.

Requesting divination from a shaman gave ordinary women, too, a chance for psychological release. Visiting shamans is traditionally considered to be a woman’s job, and these visits provided women with a socially sanctioned opportunity to complain about problems in their families or their feelings of hopelessness. In times before psychologists and therapists, when elites stood above criticism and challenging the powerful could result in imprisonment or death, shamans could have real power. They were permitted to reprimand elites for abuse of power or unethical behavior, as well as to encourage them to do good. In an extremely hierarchical society, the lowliest shaman could talk tough to her social superiors by channeling spirits who were believed to reside within her.

There is also a long history of shamanism in Korean politics—leaders have long sought out shamans, who were traditionally well regarded for their powers of divination and truth-telling. For instance, Kongmin, a fourteenth-century king of the Koryo Dynasty, favored Shin Don, a former slave turned Buddhist monk and shaman, as his senior aide. Shin conducted divination rituals to guide royal decisions and kept tabs on the Buddhist monks who, like Catholic priests in medieval Europe, exercised power over the court. At the end of the nineteenth century, Empress Myeongseong (also known as Queen Min) was so attached to her personal shaman, a woman named Yi Seong-nyeo, that she made Yi a high official and gave her unfettered influence over matters of state. (Today, some South Koreans liken this relationship to that of Park and Choi Soon-sil—a particularly derogatory analogy, since Myeongseong, the last reigning queen of Korea, was known to be corrupt and arrogant and was ultimately assassinated by the Japanese.)

IT'S THE ECONOMY

As the recent scandal demonstrates, however, the connection between shamanism and politics is not limited to feudal times. Indeed, Park Geun-hye’s father reportedly sought the advice of clairvoyants and shamans while president, a common practice among modern political and business elites.

Yet the anger about Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil has been unexpected. Currently, over a million South Koreans have participated in public protests calling for the president to resign. They regard Park as a criminal and a puppet whose poor judgment allowed Choi to control aspects of the government. They also blame Park for degrading the image and reputation of their country. South Korea is known internationally for its smart phones, automobiles, and pop culture, and some now confess that they feel embarrassed by this episode’s “shameful throwback” to “ancient stories of Korean kings and queens brought to ruin by deceitful monks or fortunetelling shamans.”

But the resilience of old-fashioned practices is not at the heart of what really unnerves South Koreans. Their anger is fueled by socioeconomic fear and insecurity. In early 2016, the IMF ranked South Korea as the worst of the 22 countries in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of income inequality, and the country has an especially worrying generational income gap. Although unemployment, which hovers around four percent, is relatively low compared to other developed countries, South Korea’s youth unemployment rate hit 12.5 percent in February 2016. To make matters worse, Korea’s largest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported in 2015 that one-third of people in their early 30s were stuck in temporary jobs even after spending ten years in the workforce. Nearly two-thirds of young people who found employment in 2015 did so in temporary or part-time jobs, which in South Korea often means being paid part-time while working full-time hours—reducing wages to far below the earning power of highly educated Korean youth.

In fact, the psychological and social impact of such conditions is particularly acute in South Korea, where children are conditioned from a young age to seek as much education as possible. Sadly, this hypercompetitive society has had the OECD’s highest suicide rate since 2003, and suicide is the number one cause of death among South Koreans aged 10 to 39. Feelings of hopelessness about the future have led young people to begin calling their country “Hell Joseon,” referring to the rigidly hierarchical and class-stratified Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). Bluntly put, many youth see their country as a living hell.

So when the public, especially the young, read that Choi Soon-sil—whose father had grown rich as a cult leader, alleged shaman, and con man—also grew filthy rich by similar means, their anger boils over. It becomes clear to them that no matter how hard they study, work, and dream, the system is rigged against them unless they’re from the elite—or have the allegedly supernatural powers to dupe the one percent into sharing its wealth. And like many traditional shamans, Choi Soon-sil came from nowhere, rising to a powerful position within the country with virtually no qualifications. But although this rags-to-riches story is common in Korean history, for today’s youth, raised to believe in meritocracy and the value of hard work, such an ascent is more likely to feel like a slap in the face.

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