Age-old tradition and the unbaffling presence of shamanism in Korean politics

By Daniele Pestilli on November 4, 2016
Choi Soon-sil heading towards her prosecution in Seoul. Image credits: KBS view (CC BY 3.0 -

Open almost any textbook on Korean history that includes mention of the nation's ancient origins, and the word “shamanism” is virtually guaranteed to be present in the index. Yet in view of the recent scandal involving the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye and her long-time friend, Choi Soon-sil, it is startling to not find any mention of the rationale behind a Korean President seeking shamanistic advice.

On October 25th, President Park publicly apologized after a South Korean TV network, JTBC, reported that they had obtained access to a personal computer abandoned by Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader, which contained 44 files with edited versions of the President’s speeches. The President confirmed that Ms Choi, who does not hold a government job, had informally edited some key Presidential speeches. It has also been confirmed that Ms Park’s confidant received massive donations from Korean corporations, which were intended for two cultural foundations, K-Sports and Mir. These funds were eventually siphoned for personal use. Other media have speculated Ms Choi might have meddled in other state affairs, yet the exact scope of the damage has not been precisely confirmed yet.

According to Al-Jazeera:

Park and Choi have been close friends for 40 years. The precise nature of that friendship lies at the heart of the scandal which has caused a media frenzy in South Korea, with lurid reports of religious cults and shamanistic rituals.

South Korea is an extremely new democracy. In theory, it is 68 years-old, but in practice, it is younger than that. The so-called First Republic which lasted from 1948 to 1960, while arguably democratic initially, eventually became an autocracy. The Second Republic lasted less than a year and resulted in a military regime. A similar fate befell the Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics. The current, Sixth Republic started in 1987. It is barely thirty years old. Age-old wisdom and rituals are far more ingrained into the national psyche than the imported Western construct of democracy.

It is no surprise that the old Chinese characters that make up the word “government” in Japanese, were matsuri-goto, or literally “deity/worship” and “matter”. This implies that even in neighboring Japan, government and ritual were deeply interwoven in times long past. But many of these traditions remain. Walk down the streets of the Gangnam district in Seoul and you will find plenty of fortune tellers and tarot card readers eager to reveal your future. Walk in other districts off the main tourist areas and you will likely find shops selling deer antlers, which are an ancient remedy to strengthen joints and bones. How odd, then, is it not to expect shamanism to filter into present-day Korean politics?

Political corruption is undeniably rotten and unjust. Nevertheless, within the context of Korean history, shamanism in politics should come as no surprise and is a testament to national continuity.

In A History of Korea, author Kim Jinwung explains, “The cult of heaven and the spirits caused Neolithic men to look upon a shaman, who was believed to have the ability to link human beings with heavenly god and the spirits, as the greatest figure. […] It was these shamans who filled the roles of clan and tribal leader in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Neolithic Age is worthy of examination, since men of this early period were the ancestors of present-day Koreans.”

While it may seem ironic, perhaps almost insulting, to compare Neolithic Korean history to the present day, the continuity is unquestionable. The author continues: “Every year, on 3 October, the day that Tan'gun founded Chosŏn in 2333, is celebrated in South Korea as Kaech’ŏnjŏl, or Foundation Day. […] The term tan'gun means shaman, or religious leader, and wonggŏm means political leader, and so the name Ta’gun Wanggŏm [sic] implies that Old Chosŏn was a theocratic society.”

When discussing politics in the third century, the author explains:

“Rulers of the three Han federations were called sinji, hŏmch’ŭk, pŏnye, salhae, kyŏnji, pŏrye, and ŭpch’a. These indigenous titles are all interpreted as having meant “chief” or “head”. These political leaders had secular powers only, while religious ceremonies were performed exclusively by masters of ritual called ch’ŏn’gun, or heavenly lord. Functioning as shamans, they are said to have had authority over separate settlements known as sodo or sottae.”

Elements of shamanism were also present in North Korean leadership, explains Bruce Cumings in his cornerstone text, Korea's Place in the Sun, where Kim Il Sung entwined Confucian virtues such as “benevolence, love, trust, obedience, respect, reciprocity between leader and led” with shamanism - “the woman-dominated religion of the lower classes.” - when engendering juche, the North Korean state ideology.

In June 2012, Reuters published an article entitled Korean shamanism finds new life in modern era. The crux of the piece is that due to modern-day social pressure, “ages-old trance rituals were going strong again”. Shamanism in Korea offers what other religions do not: tailor-made answers and solutions to people's unique dilemmas. The extent to which these divinations are tailor-made is apparent in President Park's latest scandal. As Al-Jazeera explains, “There are reports that Choi reviewed and made recommendations on government policy papers, helped choose presidential aides and even picked out Park's wardrobe.” Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the customization offered by shamanism is the picking out the President's wardrobe.

According to The Guardian an estimated 12,000 people turned out to the latest anti-government protest in Seoul, for anger of Choi’s puppeteering Korean political leaders. An article published by the Korea Times entitled Are we living in ‘Republic of Choi’? argues that the real string-puller is Choi's elder sister, Choi Soon-deuk. Popular anger is indeed justified, but regardless of who the master of puppets is, none of this can be interpreted as particularly odd or extraneous. Professor Heinz Insu Fenkl of SUNY New Paltz clarifies:

Korean Shamanism is a complex, deeply-rooted tradition intricately and uniquely adapted to its culture and society. While some contemporary Korean authorities (particularly the men in the militaristic government) see Shamanism as a national embarrassment, a tradition of ignorance and superstition impeding the modernization of a developing country, others consider it a symbol of indigenous Korean culture and would like to preserve it as a valuable part of folk tradition.

Viewed under the lens of a Western-style democracy, Koreans are right to be angry at Ms Choi's meddling in political affairs, and siphoning funds for personal use is corruption at its finest. Choo Mi-ae, leader of the main opposition party, aptly chastised the “frightening theocratic politics” of her country. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect age-old traditions to not spellbind the modern socio-political scene in South Korea.