South Korea's Shamanic Panic

Park Geun-hye's Scandal in Context

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

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.


Park is said to have fallen under the influence of the Chois as a young

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