Mystic practices still hold sway in South Korea, even in the pragmatic world of politics. But, writes Duncan Bartlett, they seem to do more harm than good
Some people in northeast Asia’s more traditional societies retain a deep faith in magic.
Mysterious figures known as geomancers, or mediums, are believed to be able to access hidden knowledge through their psychic powers.
Most of the time such shamans keep a low profile. However, in South Korea they have emerged from the shadows and stepped into the world of politics, where they are even said to influence decisions made by the recently elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol.
When Mr Yoon announced that he would relocate the presidential office to a new part of Seoul, a politician from a rival party claimed that the decision was tied to geomancy, feng shui or shamanistic practices.
Sorcery had caused trouble for Mr Yoon during the election campaign, when his rivals accused him of promoting a YouTube channel run by a shaman called Jungbub, or Master Cheon-gong.
Mr Yoon’s critics said that Master Cheon-gong had told him to write the Chinese character for ‘king’ on his hand as a symbol of good luck. It was picked up by cameras during a TV debate.
When a reporter questioned Mr Yoon about his belief in the supernatural, he replied: ‘That’s an issue that came up in the presidential election but the Democratic Party seems to be more interested in shamans than I am.’
The squabbling over magic was a striking element of a bitter election battle, which included much mudslinging and many allegations of corruption.
Mr Yoon is a conservative, representing the People’s Power Party. He won the vote on March 9 by an extremely tight margin, beating his rival Lee Jae-myung from the Democratic Party by less than one per cent.
Each side tried to smear the other by implying that only gullible and unreliable people trust shamans. Yet many powerful figures seem to be consulting psychics. Yoon Yeo-joon, a former environment minister, suggested it would be easier to count the number of South Korean politicians and business leaders who do not pick up the phone to a trusted geomancer before making a crucial decision, than to make a list of those who do.
Serious political analysts are dismayed by talk of the supernatural, complaining it distracts from a proper discussion on policy. An expert told the Hankyoreh newspaper that the gossip was ‘meaningless bickering which will irritate the general public’.
Yet beneath the tittle-tattle lies a real fear that politicians could offer money or favours to people who offer psychic advice. It was an allegation along these lines which landed a former conservative president of South Korea in jail.
Park Geun-hye was convicted of abuse of power in 2018 and was serving a 22-year prison term, until she was pardoned last year by outgoing President Moon Jae-in.
A female friend of former President Park named Choi Soon-sil claimed that she had supernatural powers and advised Ms Park to use a five-coloured pouch called an obangnang in her inaugural ceremony, explaining that the bag contained ‘energy that links people and the universe’.
Ms Choi was later accused of using her presidential connections to solicit bribes from companies such as Samsung. Sentencing her to two decades in jail, the judge said she had ‘widely meddled in state affairs’.
The scandal fuelled discontent against the government, the political elite and family-run conglomerates which dominate South Korea’s economy. It was particularly damaging to the conservatives, who are only now gradually regaining public support.
Social and political divisions within South Korea remain profound and this disunity will limit Mr Yoon’s scope to push through reform, following his inauguration this coming May. He already faces a challenge to his plan to relocate the presidential residence. Mr Yoon claims that his working life will be more efficient if he is not based in the grand, palatial Blue House but instead takes up office in a more modern building in Seoul’s Samcheong neighbourhood, which is part of the Ministry of Defence.
The compound is well equipped with security and command facilities, which could be especially important in the event of conflict with neighbouring North Korea. However, the move is expensive – the Ministry of Economy and Finance estimates it will cost 50 billion won ($40 million).
The relocation plan will require approval by the National Assembly, where Mr Yoon’s rivals in the Democratic Party retain control. Even though the executive branch of the presidency has significant discretionary powers to shape policy, the president still requires the backing of the parliament for major changes.
In his victory speech, Mr Yoon was conciliatory towards his opponents, assuring them: ‘Our competition is over for now. We have to join hands and unite into one for the people and the country.’
Calling the election a ‘great victory of the people’, he pledged to honour the constitution and parliament, and work with opposition parties to heal polarised politics.
The transition of power was smooth, with Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung gracefully conceding defeat and congratulating his opponent. Yet he added a warning: ‘Mr president-elect, I desperately ask you to overcome divisions and conflicts and open an era of integration and unity.’
Mr Yoon is looking towards the future. He promises more dialogue with Japan, a friendly relationship with President Biden and greater caution towards China.
However, his opportunity to reset the tone in South Korea will not last for long because presidents are limited to a single five-year term, a rule that was brought in to prevent leaders abusing their power.
Meanwhile, the opposition will be watching carefully for any signs the new leader is dabbling in the realm of the paranormal. They want him to focus on the challenges of the real world, which are all too apparent in the tense setting of the Korean peninsula.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a research associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. He is currently a teacher on an online course for Economist Executive Education entitled ‘International relations: China, the US and the Future of Geopolitics’