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Shamans, curses and superstitions in contemporary South Korea

Despite prevalence of Christianity and Buddhism, indigenous shamanism lives on in everyday lives of Koreans

March 28, 2023 - 14:26 By Jung Min-kyung
A scene from the episode 15 of Netflix original "The Glory," featuring a shaman performing a ritual. (Netflix)

In episode 15 of Netflix's "The Glory," the shaman character, who is involved in the antagonist Park Yeon-jin's shady family business, suddenly drops dead in the middle of performing a ritual, leaving viewers bewildered by the sudden plot twist involving a supernatural scene.

Shamanism may appear out of place in a modern-day revenge thriller, but superstitions and shamanistic practices are not far removed from the daily lives of many Koreans, even in their tech-savvy and fast-paced world.

Based on real events

South Korea has no state religion and over half of Koreans profess to follow no religion at all. Among those who are religious, the two largest groups are Christianity and Buddhism.

Shamanism is the only religion indigenous to the Korean Peninsula, predating any other major belief systems. Its ancient roots are probably why some Koreans still turn to shamans for guidance or comfort when facing life-changing events, or dealing with major illnesses or financial issues.

Sometimes, some shamans, or individuals posing as shamans, exploit the belief system for their own personal gains.

In “The Glory,” the shaman makes money by tricking vulnerable female clients into prostitution by falsely claiming that it can solve their problems. It appears to be inspired by real events.

In one such case, the police in Daegu arrested a shaman in 2009 for forcing a client into prostitution after she wasn’t able to pay for her rituals. The victim had initially borrowed 2 million won ($1,536) from the shaman’s mother in 2002, to pay for a ritual to “ward off bad luck.”

However, the victim was unable to pay off her debts due to the heavy interest demanded by the shaman's family. The shaman then coerced the victim into sex labor, demanding that she repay her debt. Over the course of six years, the shaman managed to extort a total of 1 billion won from the victim.

Photos of rocks that were buried in Rep. Lee Jae-myung's parents' grave. The rocks were suspected of being used in a shamanistic curse ritual. (Lee's Facebook)

Politics and shamanism

Shamans, curses, and fortune-telling have also had a notable presence in Korean politics.

The largest political scandal connected to shamanism to date involves none other than the impeached President Park Geun-hye.

Park’s relationship with her long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of corruption and influence peddling at the highest office, dates back to her ties with Choi’s father Choi Tae-min.

Choi Tae-min was a pseudo-Christian sect leader who was known to have an almost “father-daughter” like relationship with the former President Park. A Joongang Ilbo article from 2016 says he was regarded as the “big shaman” by the Korean shaman community before his death in 1994.

Several politicians are known to have sought the advice of shamans ahead of key elections.

The incumbent President Yoon Suk Yeol has also been suspected of having sought advice from unconventional religious figures during his campaigns as well as on his decision to relocate the presidential office and residence outside of Cheong Wa Dae.

Yoon’s 2022 election rival and the main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung recently claimed that somebody performed black magic on his parents’ grave. He claimed that stones engraved with kanji letters meaning “life,” “bright,” “to murder” and “energy” were found at the grave, which he said indicate a curse "intended to bring down the victim's family and destroy their descendants." A suspect has yet to be identified.

A shamanistic fortunetelling cafe in Hongdae, western Seoul (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)
A traditional shaman temple located in the heart of Hongdae, western Seoul (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)

Fortunetelling for fun

Outside of politics, however, many Koreans seek advice from shamans simply for fun. Most tend to take the advice with a grain of salt, much like tarot card fortune-telling in the West.

Shamanistic fortunetelling usually involves face reading and "saju." The former is the practice of analyzing a person’s character from their facial features and the latter requires the shaman to analyze the year, month, day and hour of a person’s birth to predict their past, present and future.

The fortunetelling is carried out in small temples and cafes, usually located in the bustling entertainment districts near universities such as the Hongdae area in Seoul. The atmosphere of these venues are often open and bright, unlike the misconception that it would be dark and mysterious. They are usually squeezed in between restaurants, coffee houses and clothing shops.

Shamanistic fortunetelling is also provided via mobile apps. Jeomsin, developed and operated by local tech firm Techlabs Corp., is the most popular and well-known app. Having amassed over 10 million users so far, the app connects users with fortunetellers who can interpret their saju. The users can conveniently provide their data -- their birth date and time -- via the app to the fortunetellers of their choice. They can also leave a review on the fortuneteller.

“Shamanistic fortunetelling is just a fun way to kick off another year,” Kim Eun-hye, a 33-year-old office worker who recently visited a fortuneteller in Hongdae told The Korea Herald.

“The older generation in Korea may have taken saju closer to heart and saw it as a guide to navigate through life, but my friends and I see it as a fun way to interpret what’s happening in my life. It’s nothing serious.