Korean shamans en­raged by ‘fe­male Rasputin’ scan­dal Fu­ri­ous that their rep­u­ta­tion has been tainted

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

As if South Korea’s scan­dal-hit pres­i­dent Park Geun-Hye didn’t have enough to worry about with sin­gle-digit ap­proval rat­ings and mas­sive protests, she now has thou­sands of very dis­grun­tled shamans on her case.

Prac­ti­tion­ers of the cen­turies-old spir­i­tual tradition are fu­ri­ous that their rep­u­ta­tion has been tainted by as­so­ci­a­tion with the cor­rup­tion scan­dal in­volv­ing a close friend of the pres­i­dent, Choi Soon-Sil. The daugh­ter of a shad­owy re­li­gious fig­ure, Choi has been dubbed “Korea’s Rasputin” and the pres­i­dent’s “shaman ad­viser,” be­cause of the in­flu­ence she al­legedly wielded over Park and reports link­ing her to shaman­ist rit­u­als. “We are so an­gry. She made all of us look like cor­rupt char­la­tans,” said Lee Won-Bok, head of the na­tional as­so­ci­a­tion, Shaman Korea. “Whether Choi Soon-Sil is re­ally a shaman or not, she soiled the rep­u­ta­tion of gen­uine, hard-work­ing shamans in this country. We are not like her,” Lee told AFP. Choi is cur­rently un­der ar­rest for fraud and abuse of power, hav­ing al­legedly used her long-time friend­ship with Park to force do­na­tions out of ma­jor com­pa­nies to foun­da­tions she set up and used for her personal gain.

She is also accused of med­dling in af­fairs of state, de­spite hold­ing no of­fi­cial po­si­tion.

Shaman­ism is deeply in­grained in Korean cul­ture, and de­spite liv­ing in one of the world’s most tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced coun­tries, many Kore­ans still con­sult shamans-as in­ter­ces­sors with the spirit world-for med­i­cal rea­sons, div­ina­tion, or just personal ad­vice.

Pig’s head for luck

The rit­u­als can be grisly af­fairs for the unini­ti­ated, with the shaman plung­ing a pointed tri­dent into the head of a dead pig, or bit­ing the heads of live chick­ens while danc­ing in a trance­like state. But the ac­tual pur­pose of such cer­e­monies is be­nign and of­ten very in­ti­mate wish­ing peace to the soul of a dead rel­a­tive, or just court­ing good luck for an up­com­ing project. Ac­cord­ing to Lee, South Korea has around 300,000 reg­is­tered shamans, or one for ev­ery 165 peo­ple in the country. Join­ing their num­ber re­quires a rig­or­ous ini­ti­a­tion process over­seen by an ex­pe­ri­enced shaman and Lee said his mem­bers were adamant about de­fend­ing the in­tegrity of their pro­fes­sion. Hun­dreds have signed a pe­ti­tion urg­ing the me­dia to cease de­scrib­ing Choi as a shaman, and some plan to join mass street protests call­ing for Choi to be jailed and Park to re­sign. Choi has never pub­licly de­scribed her­self as a shaman, and the me­dia spec­u­la­tion seems largely founded on the idea that she in­her­ited the man­tle from her late fa­ther.

Choi Tae-Min was a charis­matic pas­tor who had re­port­edly worked as a shaman be­fore set­ting up his own cult-like group in the 1970s, com­bin­ing tenets of Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­ity and shaman­ism. He be­came a men­tor to Park af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of her mother in 1974, and a US diplo­matic ca­ble pub­lished by Wik­ileaks noted wide­spread ru­mors that he had “com­plete con­trol over Park’s body and soul.” Af­ter her fa­ther’s death in 1994, Choi Soon-Sil re­mained close to Park and there were reports-firmly de­nied by the pres­i­dent-of shaman­ist rit­u­als be­ing per­formed in the pres­i­den­tial Blue House.

The mock­ing tone of much of the me­dia cov­er­age-with Park be­ing de­scribed as a pup­pet of a “shaman-ruled king­dom”-has both­ered peo­ple like Yang Jong-Sung, head of the Seoul-based Mu­seum of Shaman­ism.

Yang said he was re­minded of the lan­guage used dur­ing Ja­pan’s 1910-45 colo­nial rule over the Korean penin­sula, when shamans had been dis­missed as frauds and swindlers. “Shaman­ism had played an im­por­tant role in our com­mu­ni­ties for cen­turies and then they were la­belled as mere su­per­sti­tion to be erad­i­cated,” he told AFP.

The prac­tise sur­vived the Ja­panese, the dev­as­ta­tion of the Korean War and has thrived in the mod­ern, high-tech, pros­per­ous na­tion South Korea has be­come. “One of the big­gest times for us is elec­tion sea­son,” Lee said. “Many can­di­dates want to know if they have a chance to be­come a city coun­cil, gover­nor, or a par­lia­men­tary mem­ber. “But our role ends there ... we don’t med­dle with state af­fairs or ex­tort money from com­pa­nies,” he said. In re­cent years, there has been gov­ern­ment sup­port, with some well-known shamans and re­gional shaman­is­tic rit­u­als of­fi­cially des­ig­nated “in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural as­sets.” Min Hye-Gyeong, a prom­i­nent shaman, de­scribes her­self as a “grass-roots ser­vant” for or­di­nary South Kore­ans seek­ing bless­ings for their har­vests or bet­ter health for their com­mu­ni­ties.

“A big part of our job is sooth­ing the pain and sor­row of or­di­nary peo­ple at times of trou­ble, and help­ing them find emo­tional comfort,” said Min, 50. “It’s in­fu­ri­at­ing that the po­lit­i­cal scan­dal over­shad­owed all the pos­i­tive as­pects of our role and made us tar­gets of mock­ery,” she said, while pre­par­ing to per­form a cer­e­mony for a 70year-old widow in mem­ory of her late hus­band.

YANGJU, SOUTH KOREA: In this photo taken on Novem­ber 8, 2016, shaman Lee Won-Bok pre­pares for a rit­ual at a shamanic cen­ter. —AFP

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