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[Weekender] Korean psyche untangled: Musok

By Choi Si-young

Published : May 4, 2024 - 16:01

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Yang’s collection spans over 3,000 shamanic items at the Museum of Shamanism in Seoul’s Eunpyeong-gu. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald) Yang’s collection spans over 3,000 shamanic items at the Museum of Shamanism in Seoul’s Eunpyeong-gu. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Shamanism.

It resonates with Koreans -- in private. Rarely is it endorsed openly, however. Accusing someone of having acknowledged its power in any official capacity forces the person to counter the assertion, at all costs.

How this plays out in real life was on vivid display last week. K-pop giant Hybe, the company behind BTS, cornered its sublabel Ador Chief Executive Min Hee-jin over plotting to take independent the lucrative subsidiary that manages popular girl group NewJeans.

A shaman was in on the move, Hybe said following an internal audit, laying out allegations -- chiefly a breach of trust -- backed by seized text messages potentially painting the shaman and CEO Min Hee-jin as co-conspirators.

Min Hee-jin, CEO of Hybe-owned Ador, is seen at a press conference in Seoul on April 25. (Yonhap) Min Hee-jin, CEO of Hybe-owned Ador, is seen at a press conference in Seoul on April 25. (Yonhap)

Min countered, calling the shaman an acquaintance without influence on her managerial decisions. An unexpected revelation came up next: She sought out a psychiatrist. Korean CEOs rarely disclose psychiatric counsel, wary of eroding their credibility.

The 44-year-old chief executive had to be vulnerable to avoid being framed as a “shamanic CEO,” a stigma more damning than being someone who seeks psychiatric help, at least in Korea, said Choi Joon-sik, an expert on Korean religion and culture.

Conflicting perceptions

“The fact of the matter is we have had something akin to an allergic reaction to openly endorsing ‘musok’ and anything associated with it,” Choi said of Korean shamanism. Musok translates literally as “shamans” and “customs.” Shamans claim they employ divination to reverse the misfortunes of those seeking supernatural intervention.

Shamans -- called “mudang,” often female -- perform rituals called “gut” to communicate with gods or spirits. Practices involving the tradition are largely seen today as superstitious and unscientific, Choi noted. The tendency to brush them off, however, goes against the very nature of Koreans, Choi added.

A shaman played by actor Kim Go-eun performs a ritual in “Exhuma.” (Showbox) A shaman played by actor Kim Go-eun performs a ritual in “Exhuma.” (Showbox)

“Musok is the Korean psychological makeup. We turn a blind eye to it because we’ve been taught that way,” Choi said, blaming the Western-style education system, which he argues has, since 1945, resulted in marginalizing Korean traditions including folk religions, like musok. That was when Korea began nation-building following Japan’s colonial rule for 35 years.

The traditions that were pushed away are collectively seen as something antithetical to reason, Choi added, saying the arrival of Western religions in Korea led by Christianity had worsened perceptions to the point that many Koreans have come to call the traditions superstitious.

The stigmatization of shamanism dates as far back as the Joseon era (1392-1910), when the ruling class under Neo-Confucianism rooted out anything they considered superstitious or mystical in the name of reason, according to Choi. “Shamans had long been looked down (upon).”

Yoshinobu Shinzato, a professor at Japan’s Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies who teaches shamanism, particularly musok, said the pattern of open denial still exists.

“The royal court of Joseon officially and openly distanced itself from musok, though in private, the tradition held sway over the royals,” Shinzato said.

Musok, superstitious?

One of the conspicuous inconsistencies professors Choi and Shinzato point out in the way Korean society deals with musok is in governmental recognition.

The Korean government recognizes the musok rituals that shamans oversee as intangible parts of cultural heritage. Resources like taxes are used to preserve them. The Cultural Heritage Committee, the body handling the matter under the Cultural Heritage Administration, has a subcommittee dedicated to those efforts.

So, why the then-presidential candidate Yoon Suk Yeol was criticized over a seemingly “shamanic practice” two years ago is baffling, according to Shinzato. When a televised debate caught the Chinese character for “king” written on Yoon’s left palm, whether Yoon would be able to lead the country in a “rational way” was immediately called into question.

And it is too premature to comment on the development at Hybe, Shinzato observed.

“But one thing is certain and that is the scandal highlights the central role musok plays in Korean culture and religions today. The social stigma that considers musok a superstitious incantation hasn’t faded yet,” Shinzato said.

“So what is superstition after all? Can we definitively say musok is one?” he asked.

Yang Jong-sung, a Korean folklorist who received a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University in the US, said musok has been framed to look superstitious by those who believe anything of enduring value to teach the next generation comes from outside religions and traditions.

“So it’s okay to celebrate Christmas and Buddha’s Birthday but not okay to even welcome gods of our own to whom our ancestors had paid respects?” asked Yang, who does not identify himself as a shaman though he had training.

“I just don’t see the logic here. Why can’t those practices be carried on?”

Identifying psyche, zeitgeist

Yang opened the Museum of Shamanism in Seoul in 2013, a year after he resigned as curator of the state-run National Folk Museum. The fresh start marked what he believed was the work of passing on a system of beliefs that render Koreans Korean.

The private museum houses Geumseongdang, a shamanic shrine dedicated to a god called Geumseong. The shrine is the only such shrine extant in Seoul today; two others were destroyed as urban renewal projects took hold in the 1970s. Paying respects to the god began as early as the Goryeo Kingdom, which precedes Joseon.

“We need to understand how we’re wired, and remember where we come from and where we’re headed. The spiritual and intellectual exploration is incomplete without embracing musok,” Yang said.

A shaman performs a ritual in “Exhuma.” (Showbox) A shaman performs a ritual in “Exhuma.” (Showbox)

“Exhuma,” a recent Korean occult thriller probing musok, deserves credit for such a cinematic exploration, Yang added. Reception has been generally favorable since the February release, with critics at least crediting the director for floating the rarely discussed topic.

The 70-year-old museum director -- who sat on the Cultural Heritage Committee in 2019 to advise on folklore management -- urged broader government intervention to first resolve conflicting perceptions of musok.

“If the public has an allergic reaction to openly discussing musok, the government should help to desensitize it. Tap into resources. This isn’t something individuals or civic groups can do on their own,” Yang said.

Choi, the emeritus religious studies professor, said the government should think bigger, beyond clearing hurdles that prevent musok from being out in the open. Decoding what he labels the psychological makeup isn’t enough, according to Choi.

“The question we have to answer at the end of day is what the zeitgeist was, is and will be,” Choi said of the spirit characteristic of an age, likening the project to putting together a map of thoughts -- one that will be of, by and for the Korean people.