Sorcery at the Heart of Korean Politics
A dharma master, a venerable teacher, talismans. A presidential candidate captivates the nation with his apparent interest in the supernatural.
Last fall Korea's main opposition People Power Party held a series of televised debates to choose its candidate for the presidential election in March. What ended up dominating the national conversation wasn't participants' policy proposals or qualifications but a single character.
On the left palm of former prosecutor-general Yoon Seok-youl, who would go on to win the nomination, appeared a small Chinese character meaning "king"—wang 王—as if written with a pen.
It captured the public's attention at the fifth debate, but astute journalists reviewed tapes and realized that Yoon had the same letter on his hand at the third and fourth debates as well.
Once noticed, it became the talk of town. Writing "king" on one's hand is an occult practice that gives the bearer courage to speak in public, rumors went. Another interpretation sees it as a talisman to help Yoon realize his presidential ambition; the Korean presidency is often called monarchical because of the immense power its office holder wields.
Yoon dismissed the speculation, saying well-meaning elderly neighbors had written it on him as a supportive gesture, but he has been back in the spotlight this week, again for his suspected interest in the metaphysical arts: the newspaper Segye Ilbo reported that a shaman was working as a senior advisor to his campaign. When Yoon denied it, the same newspaper produced a video montage of photos showing the alleged shaman leading him around the campaign headquarters as if on very close terms.
It isn't the first time a shaman's involvement in Korean politics has been suspected. A close confidante of the disgraced former president Park Geun-hye, impeached and ousted from power in 2017, was Choi Soon-sil, whose late father had been a charismatic christian preacher (some say a cult leader). At least one pastor called the father-daughter duo "sorcerers and shamans" (although that label has to be taken with a grain of salt considering no love between the Korean Protestant establishment and its religious competitors).
When corruption allegations against Park emerged in late 2016, it was also revealed Choi had been responsible for the gigantic "fortune pouch" installation at Park's inauguration in 2013; it was covered in cloth of five different colors representing five directions according to East Asian cosmology, suggesting Choi had been inspired by religious beliefs.
Yoon, though, has more unusual connections than one. In August 2020 the left-leaning online outlet Newstapa quoted a witness as saying that he had drinks in 2018 with chairman Hong Seok-hyun of the powerful JoongAng Group, to which the daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo and the cable channel JTBC belong. Reportedly also in attendance was a fortuneteller brought by Hong. (Fun fact: Hong is Korea's former ambassador to the US and an uncle of Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jae-yong Lee a.k.a. Jay Y. Lee.)
Last summer Yoon met with Kim Jong-in, a retired five-term lawmaker often called a "Kingmaker" for his significant ability to shape electoral outcomes. According to the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo, here, too, was a fortuneteller (different from Hong's) who professed to "have known Kim for decades" and speculated on political compatibility between Yoon and Kim.
And revelations keep piling up. Just on Sunday the broadcaster MBC aired excerpts from some 50 phone calls between a journalist and Yoon's wife Kim Geon-hee, secretly taped between July and December last year.
In them, Kim talked at length about her relations with a certain Venerable Mujeong (Mujeong Seunim 무정스님). The monastic-sounding name aside, Mujeong is "not a Buddhist monk, but someone who really cultivates himself spiritually." Kim claimed to "dislike shamans", but called Mujeong a "spiritual master" (dosa 도사), a title that generally refers to those with otherworldly powers, and confessed that she had relied on him for advice.
Then there is the Venerable Teacher Cheongong (Cheongong Seuseungnim 천공스승님) who runs a new religious community. After one of Yoon's political rivals accused him of being mentored by this mysterious persona, Cheongong himself gave a media interview in October to deny being Yoon's mentor, even while admitting that he had talked with Yoon and Kim on several occasions.
The Dharma Master Geonjin (Geonjin Beopsa 건진법사), as the alleged shaman in a senior advisory role at Yoon's campaign headquarters is known, is the latest name on this long list of spiritual counsellors in Yoon's orbit. Geonjin claims to belong to a Buddhist order, but one that mainstream Buddhists don't recognize as such, and apparently caused an uproar in the past by holding a ritual with a completely skinned cow corpse as an offering.
To be clear, Yoon isn't the only prominent Korean personality to rely on shamans, fortunetellers and spiritual masters. It's a thriving industry with some reports estimating the number of such professionals at over one million—nearly two percent of the population. Mainstream media run stories about the fengshui of corporate headquarters (the chairman of one large financial services firm consulted a geomancer—a traditional fengshui expert—to decide on where to build his company office).
And in the run up to the presidential election, it's almost customary for Korean papers and news magazines to publish feature articles on the candidates' physiognomy—what their faces say about election chances—like this one here.
Still, the facts of Yoon's case defy the country's high level of tolerance for traditional beliefs.
A US-based Korean-language paper The Sunday Journal calls the presence of many fortunetellers in the company of the powerful including Yoon "a reflection of the gloomy reality in the Republic of Korea" because "it shows how people in important social positions think and arrive at decisions."
One day after the "king" character on Yoon's palm made the news, Hong Joon-pyo, his competitor in the People Power Party primary, wrote on Facebook: "How has a presidential election become a sorcery election?"
"Yoon reportedly went to meet Kim Jong-in with a shaman in tow. [...] What's next, is he going to wear a magical charm on his body at the next debate?"
It sounds like a joke, but Yoon's situation has become so laughable that no one can rule that possibility out.
And when even a media group chairman and former ambassador as well as an elder statesman keeps the company of fortunetellers, Yoon cannot be the only one to dabble so actively in sorcery politics.
Cover: Yoon showing the Chinese character for "king" on his left palm at the fifth debate of the People Power Party primary on Oct. 1 (source: YTN)