Religion and Politics in South Korea: Very Comfortable Bedfellows

Religion and Politics in South Korea: Very Comfortable Bedfellows

Gene Eu
Gene Eu

It is 1975. An assembly of people are gathered together, standing in front of their purported leader. The group is fervently shaking their hands and praying. A girl, her eyes closed and seemingly on the verge of tears, is mouthing something. It’s a fleeting but powerful image. The leader then introduces a 23-year-old woman who gives a speech in front of them.

The scene comes from a black-and-white video that has been broadcast widely by major South Korean news outlets in recent weeks. The young woman is, of course, President Park Geun-hye, to which people of the time referred to with the honorific form yeong-ae, a term reserved for a daughter of the president. And the leader is the now-deceased Choi Tae-min, or Envoy (chiksa) Choi, the official nomenclature he himself preferred.

A figure who was purported to have psychic abilities and whom many religious leaders viewed with suspicion, Choi held the prayer assembly for his organization Guguk Missionary, or the Mission for National Salvation. Before then, Mr. Choi was notorious as the leader of a small religion called Yeongse-gyo, a syncretic cult that fused together elements of Buddhism, Christianity and Cheondo-gyo, an indigenous Korean religion. (Some claim that Guguk Missionary was a later incarnation of Yeongse-gyo.)

Most importantly, Mr. Choi fathered Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of Ms. Park and the figure behind the current political crisis.

Watching the archival video, I was struck by how familiar the whole scene seemed. Such fervent religiosity is an integral part of the fabric of contemporary South Korea. A few years ago, I stepped inside Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, a prominent mega-church, for a journalistic piece I was working on at the time. Having lived in the U.S. for a few years when I was young, I had been to small, local Korean churches and Bible study groups in the U.S. That was the Protestant church I was familiar with — a local and intimate nexus where residents, mostly neighbors, gather together on a quiet Sunday not only to attend prayer services but also to socialize.

Standing in front of the mega church, I was in for a quite different experience. As I entered the auditorium of the parthenon-like building, I was awed by its sheer scale and also by the enormous crowd that came from all walks of life. During the roughly two hour-long service, I could sense the fervor of the audience, comprising of the young and the old, women and men. With their eyes closed, some people around me were shaking their bodies and hands as they prayed, and it seemed as if the physicality of their gestures acted as a means to channel the benevolence of God.     

In drawing a comparison between the video and my experience of going to the mega church, I don’t mean to attack Protestantism in South Korea. But the visual association in my head reminded me of a somewhat obvious truth: the remarkable influence of religions in South Korean society. Many South Koreans speak contemptuously of Choi as a shaman, and rumor abounds that the Ms. Park might have held shamanistic exorcisms with Choi. But to go by the culture in South Korea, where it is still common to consult shamans and make spirit offerings at important events in life, not to mention attend these fervently spiritual church services, what the president might have done, if it is true at all, wasn’t that unusual.


Right now, the current administration in South Korea is on the verge of collapse. News broke out nearly two months ago that President Park was receiving ill-fated advice from Choi Soon-sil on matters ranging from speeches, to the president’s wardrobe, to political appointments. The president made two official apologies for the scandal without directly implicating herself in it.

Rather than calming the public, the apologies encouraged roughly 200,000 people to come out onto the streets of Seoul to protest and demand her resignation on Nov. 5. After just one week, 200,000 became a million. Last Saturday, the crowd grew to a staggering 1.5 million in the capital alone.

Unfortunately, to borrow past words of the president herself, the energy of the universe is ineluctably, omnidirectionally set against her. (Last year on Children’s Day, Park spoke to a group of children, “There’s a saying that all the universe will conspire in helping to achieve something when you want it.” To be fair to Ms. Park, she was quoting a passage from Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, a bestseller in South Korea. But now even this past allusion is taking on a different meaning with the current crisis.)

My interest in this whole scandal lies not in its intricate web of plots and sub-plots, but, rather, the place of religion in all of this. Just how far-reaching is the influence of religion in this country? It’s a big and difficult question because the very concept of religion in this country, which has a complex history, is fluid and difficult to pin down.

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, 53% of the total population in this country follow a specific religion, with the top three being Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism. But on the level of everyday life, many South Koreans, regardless of their personal religion, frequently seek the advice of mudang (shamans) and visit fortune tellers for part-entertainment and part-solace.

(Most foreign scholars consider Korean shamanism as a form of religion, but many South Koreans, in fact, do not see it as one. In fact, there’s no consensus here on whether it’s a religion or not.)

My former boss once told me how he once visited a famous female mudang to seek advice on marriage. Following the mudang’s advice, he ended up marrying the woman he was seeing. In South Korea, religion, pseudo-religion, and superstition coexist in such a fashion that, even though they command varying degrees of respectability, they all play a part in influencing and guiding people’s lives.    

Religion creeps up in unexpected ways. Recently, I went to a used musical instrument store, thinking I could use a piano at my place. I asked the owner if I could come back on Sunday, to which he replied, in a benevolent but unmistakably chastising tone, “You don’t go to Church on Sunday? Why?”

I was a bit surprised by this, but I told him immediately, lest he would think I was being insincere, that I used to go to church years ago but I couldn’t nowadays because of my busy life, which wasn’t a complete lie. Without saying anything, he dwelt on my excuse. I must have looked like a lost sheep to his eyes, but he decided to leave the matter of my neglect in faith for the time being.

Then there’s the issue of pseudo-religion, or saibi as it is called in Korean. Park Hyung-taek, a pastor who leads the Korean Christian Heresy Research Center, a religious counseling center based in Seoul, says there are roughly 500 pseudo-religious groups in South Korea. In fact, numerous stories involving pseudo-religions circulate in this country — abductions, forced conversions, brainwashing, defamation and so on — and it is not difficult to see why Pastor Park would emphasize the figure.

I thought of a story involving one of my family members, who asked me to keep even his/her gender anonymous out of fear for personal safety. (For the sake of convenience, I will refer to the person as ‘he’).

He went to a dubious four-day workshop held by a cult religion at the request of a senior female co-worker who was very solicitous and kind. Apparently, everyone at this workshop was also, rather creepily, very solicitous and kind. The workshop started out innocently enough, reading passages from the Bible and discussing them. Gradually, references to Hell, the number 666, and various conspiracy theories disguised as scientific facts rose above the surface. He no longer keeps in touch with this co-worker anymore.

How does religion fit into the bigger picture of things? Many religious leaders are powerful and exert dubious influence on this society. Take Moon Sun-Myung for instance, the late founder of the Unification Church and a self-proclaimed Messiah, who also controlled newspapers and amassed a fortune. And some religious leaders face serious allegations of embezzlement and other crimes. (The pastor Cho Yong-gi at Yoido Full Gospel Church and his family come to mind.)

In fact, signs of deepening ties between religion and politics in South Korea are often flagrant. When former President Lee Myung-bak, a Protestant, ran for his office in 2007, some churches pressured people to vote for him. “Vote for Lee if you don’t want your name erased from the Book of Life,” some pastors told Christian followers back in 2007. In Christianity, the Book of Life refers to the book in which the names of all people destined for heaven are believed to be written.

Park Geun-hye (right) at a religious event held by Choi Tae-min in 1975. Dubbed "Korea's Rasputin" by some, Choi is the father of Choi Soon-sil, Park's confidante going back decades.
Park Geun-hye (center) at a religious event held by Choi Tae-min (left) in 1975. Dubbed “Korea’s Rasputin” by some, Choi is the father of Choi Soon-sil, Park’s confidante going back decades. (Source: Korea Broadcasting System)

And we come back to the deep and endless rabbit hole that is the Choi Soon-sil gate. Clearly, the intersection between religion and politics in South Korea, hinted at by the current political scandal, is a chronic problem and is here to stay. What makes the situation now unusual is that the religion in question here is not really a religion, and its central figure and his daughter might have exerted direct influence on the VIP of the VIPs, the president herself.

Officially, the Blue House has denied any ties between Park Geun-hye and shamanism. Although many media outlets are depicting Park as a tragic puppet figure influenced by pseudo-religion, an easy image to buy into, it is important to notice that neither does Ms. Park officially follow a religion, nor does she have any clear ties with Yeongse-gyo.

However, the truth is that many people are making a link between Ms. Park’s unconfirmed ties with Yeongse-gyo and Ms. Park’s rhetoric, which struck the public as utterly strange at various moments, with talks about the “energy of the universe” and “spirits.” (In a meeting at the president’s office November last year concerning the issue of historical textbooks, she stated that one’s spirits become abnormal if one does not properly learn about history.)    

Not surprisingly, Park is not the only one among the upper echelons of Korea’s society to be caught in trouble due to alleged ties to religion. Earlier this month, the nominee for the Minister of Public Safety and Security, Park Seung-joo, had to withdraw from the confirmation hearing at Parliament because of his participation in a shamanistic event. Jeong Yun-hoe, Choi Soon-sil’s ex-husband who was formerly a key figure within Park’s inner circle, is now in the news again for his alleged reliance on a fortune teller for political decision-making. There are now reports that this fortune teller might have influenced presidential affairs.

Something is rotten in the state of South Korea. A short-term solution will not do. Now the scandal is playing out as a media spectacle, a once-in-a-lifetime-show on television, but when the dust settles, it will be important to to think hard and clear about whether beliefs in otherworldly matters have become too comfortable a bedfellow with politics.

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