Many foreigners, especially those hailing from Western countries, seem to digress from the whole point of the Choi Soon-sil and President Park Geun-hye fiasco that has brought chaos to Korea. Although it is understandable that Western media may be overwhelmed with the sudden surge of information uploaded on a daily basis by the Korean media, it is absolutely unforgivable how they have distorted the real issue at stake. Korea is not like the United States or Europe.
There is no national religion or a major religion embedded in the foundation of the country, and there has been none. If anything, Buddhism, shamanism or totemism has a much longer history and relevance with Korea than Christianity. This is a critical fact that needs to be addressed because this is where Western media have gotten it all wrong.
Just to be clear, I have no objections to condemning Choi Tae-min, the father of the now-notorious Choi Soon-sil and creator of the problematic religious cult that gripped President Park Geun-hye, as “Rasputin” as many Western media outlets have done. One thing for certain is that Choi definitely did not start his own religion purely out of the goodness of his heart.
Choi’s religious group came into existence when President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, gave orders to create a new Christian influence that would weaken progressive Christians who fought against his dictatorship. In other words, scores of Christian groups thrived and divided into new forms of Christian branches as different leaders were elected and politics got tangled up in the process of gathering votes.
Furthermore, Christianity came to Korea only a century or so ago. It is still very young compared to the thousands of years old shamanism. Therefore, it is pretentious for Western media to simply conclude that the cause of the problem is the religious cults. What is the standard that designates a religious group as a cult anyway, and especially in country like Korea?
Korea is famously referred to as a “department store of religion,” and for good reason, too. For many Koreans, shamanism is not a foreign concept, and I have come by quite a few people who call themselves Christians, yet also make frequent visits to shamans’ homes. Also, different religious beliefs can be pursued even among family members.
The reaction and attitude towards shamanism is definitely different from that of Westerners, and this is to be expected. After all, it was not the Koreans who spilled blood over years of religious battles. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics as well as Muslims and Christians (mainly Westerners) seems to be ongoing to this day, as is apparent in the US presidential election, which average Korean citizens would not be able to fully comprehend and probably never could.
A more modern example that clearly shows why Americans would put emphasis on cults and shamanism is “In God We Trust” that is blaringly featured on their currency. To top it off, that phrase is the United States’ motto, and that says it all.
Without the basic understanding of Korean political and cultural history, Western media will keep making the sad mistake of pinpointing the blame of corruption and political disarray on Choi’s family and the rise of religious cults. Any organization, whether it is religious, nonreligious, Christian, Shamanistic, etc., should be penalized and regulated if it deviates from the law or the constitution and harms the society or people.
The people of Korea are outraged by the failed governance of the Park administration and irresponsibility of the president for allowing herself to be reduced into nothing more than a puppet, controlled by some random woman, all the while pretending to be a competent leader to the nation. And this is why Koreans are not talking about religious cults.
Student of international relations,
Kyung Hee University, Seoul
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