Nov 17, 2016

Religious cult and Choi gate

By Ku Yae-rin
Korea Times
November 17, 2016

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 upon 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 watchdog 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 major religion embedded in the foundation of the country and there has been none. If anything, Buddhism, shamanism and totemism have 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, father of the notorious Choi Soon-sil and the creator of the problematic religious cult that has gripped President Park Geun-hye, as a “Korean Rasputin” as many Western media have already done. One thing for certain is that Choi definitely did not start his own version of a religion purely out of the goodness of his heart. Choi’s religious group came into existence when President Park’s father, former president 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 was brought to Korea only about a century ago by missionaries. It is still very young compared to the millennia-old shamanism. Therefore, it is pretentious for Western media to simply conclude the cause of the problem is the religious cults. What is the standard that designates a religious group as a cult anyway, especially in a country like Korea?

Korea is famously referred to as a “department store of religions” and for a good reason too. For many Koreans, shamanism is not a foreign concept and I have come by quite a lot of 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 secular battles. The conflicts between Protestants and Catholics as well as Muslims and Christians (mainly Westerners) seems to be ongoing to this day as is apparent in the U.S. presidential election campaign, 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 that “In God We Trust” is blaringly featured in their currency. To top it off, that phrase is the United States’ motto, and that says it all.

Without a 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 society or the people. The people of Korea are outraged by the failed governance of the Park administration and the irresponsibility of the President for allowing herself to be reduced to a mere puppet, controlled by some random woman, all the while pretending to be a competent leader of the nation. And this is why Koreans are not talking about religious cults.

Ku Yae-rin is a student at Kyung Hee University majoring in international relations. Write to

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