Entrepreneurial Shamanism in South Korea

The Prophet-Puppet Master of the Park Presidency

Should business leaders be allowed to have religious followers? The Constitutional Court of Korea will likely face this question as the National Assembly approaches a vote on an impeachment bill for incumbent President Park Geun-Hye within the next few days.

Now identified as a suspected accomplice to a $70 million embezzlement scheme that has appalled the nation, President Park not only faces a reported crowd of 1.5 million protestors in Seoul, but also a dysfunctional government including many dissenters within her own party.

At the heart of this scandal is the mysterious businesswoman, Choi Soon-Sil: a close confidante of Park who has been revealed to have used her friendship with Ms Park to solicit large business donations for two non-profit funds under her control. After examining a tablet in Choi’s office, reporters further discovered that Ms Choi not only had access to top secret presidential reports on a near-daily basis, but also secretly advised the president regarding major aspects of governance including her North Korea policy and economic strategy, presumably with ulterior personal motives. Choi’s grasp on the presidency even extended to appointing key cabinet members and determining Park’s wardrobe choices during public events.

Protesters mocking President Park Geun-Hye, front, and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, rear, in Seoul | AFP

However, perhaps most troubling to the South Korean people (and certainly enthralling to the foreign press) is Ms Choi’s shadowy shamanistic influence over the President, which begins with the women’s fathers: Park Chung-Hee, former South Korean military dictator and Choi Tae-min, founder and self-declared Maitreya (or “Future Buddha”) of the Eternal Life Church, a religious sect strongly resembling Muism, or Korean Shamanism. Described in a U.S. telegram (courtesy of WikiLeaks) as a “Korean Rasputin”, Choi befriended Mr Park during his presidency until Park’s assassination by his own Head of Intelligence, who later claimed that one of his motives for the killing was the “President’s inability to rid himself of Choi’s influence”.

Choi became a trusted mentor to the young Park Geun-Hye after the assassination of her mother in 1974, claiming that her mother’s spirit had approached him in his dreams, according to official reports. He remained a close family friend and advisor until his death in 1994, after which his daughter, Choi Soon-Sil, continued his legacy of cult-leading and presidential ear-whispering. Though it is unproven whether her father had peddled influence, Ms Choi has been indicted for fraud, coercion and abuse of power for personal profit.

Industrializing the Occult

If this scandal suggests anything about business and religious cultism, it’s that they cannot work together in good conscience. South Korea has a particularly traumatic past with private religious sects, most epitomized in the 2014 Sewol Ferry tragedy that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly those of schoolchildren. The owner of the ferry company, Yoo Byung-Eun, was a prominent cult leader and multi-billionaire tycoon who had siphoned off its funds for his personal profit and habitually transported cargo on its vessels well above the legal limit, crippling the company and its ability to operate safely. Furthermore, the cult was linked to a presumed mass-suicide of factory workers employed by one of Yoo’s subsidiaries, all of whom had owed money to his cult.

In light of these fairly recent tragedies, it’s hard to imagine a Korea (also the origin of the Moonies) that would welcome a cult leader in public, let alone in the President’s office. The immediate reaction to the latest presidential scandal has been shame: after all, how could we, a beacon of economic revival and progress, still be subject to the whispers of a charlatan? What happened to the freedom that cost us a colonization, a civil war, and decades of poverty?

It’s easy to bash religion, as characteristic of liberal progressives who are quick to assign blame on the sectarianism of traditional ideologies. Yet time and again, cultish forces reveal themselves in positions of incredible power, having permeated top levels of businesses and governments, and their mass followings are at the very least a testament to their charisma (just ask our deity-neighbor, Kim Jong-Un). To dismiss this phenomenon as a mere lapse in human progress would not only insult our intelligence, but also render us equally guilty of the very parochialism that we accuse these oppressors of.

Instead, we need to consider an obvious but uneasy truth: that mystic motives have driven major business and political decisions, both good and bad, for a very long time. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are all religious figures in their own ways who have amassed considerable zealous followings and support for both their and their allies’ businesses, forming a devout buyer-seller relationship with their followers. For instance, a Trump-supporter may favor products from his own companies or those that endorse him, especially if he is portrayed as a pseudo-Christ figure who will “save this country”, while his opposition is demonized and reduced to jezebellian heresy (this isn’t limited to conservative right-wingers; consider the messianic language of the Obamaniacs in 2008 or Cult Bernie more recently). Similarly, an Apple fanatic may eagerly await the next iPhone, iMac or other iRelic benevolently bestowed upon the world as a legacy of the genius technogod who left us too soon. Business and religion are not merely intersectional, but symbiotic. So while it’s despicable that President Park allowed national resources to be exploited by her religious mentor, it’s not surprising that she felt the need to affirm dedication to her (and therefore, the cult) with a tangible offering: money.

Trump rally in Mobile, Alabama, August 2015 | Getty Images

You Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid Because You’re Thirsty

Of course, there are stark differences between a business leader selling products to loyal consumers and a cult leader strong-arming corporations for donations using governmental ties, no matter how pious the customer base may be. Oprah Winfrey doesn’t shell out Pontiac G6s on her show to coerce General Motors to pay her, she does it to maximize viewership because few things are more spectacular than showering fans with expensive gifts. Choi Soon-Sil, on the other hand, creates personal profit opportunities by blatantly abusing a president who has been elected and therefore entrusted by the people to lead the country. Her actions are a direct attack on us.

So how does the commander-in-chief of Asia’s fourth largest economy become a pawn for a fortune teller? In case you’re wondering, that’s not an exaggeration — Choi has predicted in correspondences with Ms Park that North Korea will implode in 2017, recommended that the President avoid wearing red or white clothes for good luck, and even offered amulets for “magical” protection. She also convinced her to decorate a nearby tree with silk purses during her inauguration for good fortune. To identify how President Park has fallen prey to this swindler, we need to examine her childhood relationship with the Chois.

A young Choi Soon-Sil escorting Park during a pro-government rally at Hanyang University, 1979

Having grown up together, Ms Choi and Ms Park were incredibly close throughout the president’s familial tragedies including the assassinations of both her mother and father, and the estrangement of her siblings. The two women were also extensively involved in a pro-government volunteer group founded by Choi’s father during their university-years. It’s not difficult to imagine the powerful influence that the Chois, well-endorsed by her own father, would have had on the young Park. In fact, the Chois were so possessive of Park that her siblings filed a petition in 1990 to former president Roh Tae-woo pleading for intervention. When there was no effective response after numerous attempts, Park began to distance herself from them, perhaps as advised by her mentor, sadly condemning her to the shamans forever. The most evil manipulation happens on the most innocent level.

It’s clear that business leaders should not have religious followers if they exploit their devotion for personal gain. Choi Soon-Sil is a criminal and we cannot allow secretive cults to demand business from their patrons under the pretense of reverence. But we should not forget how ubiquitous business-religions are and the good that they can potentially achieve. After all, we wouldn’t be where we are without the Apple fanboys that fueled the demand for a world-changing tech revolution, or the grand 10-year manifesto of Elon Musk that has brought us closer to privatized space travel, electric cars, and now, self-driving technologies. And I know for a fact that if Oprah asked me to look under my seat, I’d call myself a fan for life.