By K.J. Noh
Mysticism does not necessarily lead to despotism, but many despots frequent mystics: to obtain a psychic safety net for high wire acts of political violence, to prescribe emotional narcotics to anesthetize the conscience, and in the final act, as karmic adjusters to insure against retribution from the bloodshed and suffering they unleash.
The Italians under Mussolini grew their own fascist mysticism, the Nazis were mired in occult symbolism, rituals, and mythology, and the Showa Era Japanese Empire, and Shinzo Abe’s current gang of unreconstructed, revisionist, ultra-nationalist militarists are also mystical and religious fundamentalists to a one.
South Korea’s own fascism has involved many generations of permutations on cults, shamans, and prophetic charlatans, the most prominent of them being the Reverend Moon Sun Myong of the Unification Church and his enmeshment with the South Korean government and intelligence agencies.
Its latest redux of fascist mysticism, however, involves a millionaire protestant shaman, a horse-jumping daughter, occult messages from the dead, and shoddy fashion consultations.
Here is the wretched, tawdry, cautionary tale:
Blood, Sex, and Death
It’s 1961, and former Japanese collaborator–Masao Tagaki/Okamoto Minoru-an artillery and counterinsurgency officer in the dreaded Japanese Imperial Kwan Tung Army, has turned in his Japanese insignia, and has rapidly ascended up the ranks of the Korean Military. He becomes the chief of staff for the Korean Army. Just the year before, in 1960, the US installed puppet-president-cum-genocidaire Syngman Rhee has been deposed by massive popular protest. Rhee turns tail, and rapidly returns to the country that parachuted him into office, living out his last years in bewildered, sybaritic, confused decadence in Hawaii, a tin pot dictator within his own gated residence. Into this power vacuum, Tagaki/Minoru, now Park Chung Hee, instigates a military coup. Within a year he has designated himself as president of a new Korean republic. With the blessing of the Kennedy Administration, and then the Johnson and Nixon administrations, he settles in, and then rewrites the constitution to make himself dictator for life.
“Caligula in Raybans and a Bomber Jacket”, Park was a steely despot of extraordinary ambition, violence, and determination. It’s often claimed that he kick-started the wounded, devastated country into economic development, through inspired technocratic planning and an incorruptible, if iron will. In truth, the “economic miracle” that Park engineered in South Korea was modeled on Japanese-occupied Manchuria during his stint in their military. Nobusuke Kishi, the deputy minister of economic development, had taken charge of the puppet state of Manchukuo and forced industrialization through totalitarian control of the economy and the state: militarized control of slave labor, state-corporatist monopolies, industrialized sexual slavery, and an absolute command economy, resulting in a monstrous, “necropolitical” state.
Park, as Kishi’s understudy, would take these ideas to his Korea, and attempt to develop the Korean economy on similar lines. This, along with Washington’s need to create a counterexample to North Korea’s genuine economic miracle–and more foreign aid than the entire continent of Africa– gave Park the political and economic capital to run the country as he saw fit: as a garrison state, a labor concentration camp, and a personal brothel. In doing so, Park unleashed rancor, dissent, protest, and resistance that was barely suppressed at the point of a rifle. Torture, terror, and torrents of bloodshed were the order of the day; bloodied bodies were the compost that fed the South Korean “miracle”.
In 1974, a disaffected Japanese-Korean, would attempt to assassinate the hated President Park during a public speech. The agile Park ducks, and the bullet hits his wife who is sitting behind him. Mayhem results. Eventually the assassin is subdued and the first lady’s dying corpse is dragged out. Park returns to the podium, dusts off his jacket, and then says, without flinching or hesitating, “As I was saying…” and continues his speech, as if nothing had happened. Historians and psychologists may debate whether this was stoicism or psychopathy; the historical record points to the latter.
The daughter of the president, Park Geun Hye, from that day forward, becomes the first lady. A young college student at the time–all of 22 years old–and sheltered, she is bewildered, frightened, and traumatized by what is happening around her. When Choi Tae-min, a self-ordained minister-turned buddhist-turned shamanic cult leader claims to be channeling messages from her deceased mother, Park, the daughter, brings him on as a mentor and never lets go.
A few years later, President Park himself is killed. In secret villa set up for sexual escapades, and with two young women (a college student and a singer) duly procured to service his sexual needs, an argument–some of it about Choi–between the chief of the KCIA [Kim Jae kyu] and security chief [Cha Ji Chul] turns ugly, and Park Chung Hee is shot dead between the transition from cognac to coitus.
Park the daughter has now seen the death of both of her parents, and sees the world around her—including close colleagues of her father—as dangerous and unpredictable. As she retreats inward, she draws her few confidantes closer. Choi Tae-min, and his daughter, Choi Soon-sil are among them.
Choi Tae-min, South Korea’s Grigori Rasputin, was born 1912, in Hwanghae Province in North Korea. He had a picaresque life, first serving as a policeman under Japanese occupation, then as an official in South Korea’s military police, most likely party or witness to some of the atrocity-inducing policies of the Rhee government.
In 1954, he abruptly entered a monastery and disappeared. Later in the 60’s he reappeared, holding positions in the dictatorship’s ruling party central committee, and was titular or actual head of several businesses or foundations, including a soap factory, a newspaper, and the principle of a middle school.
In the 70’s, Choi proclaims to have discovered “a method to unify the soul” and claims that he can heal hard-to-treat or terminal diseases. A minor faith healer with a small following, he establishes a cult with his faithful, while living hand-to-mouth in rented housing, and shuffling through a number of wives and fathering numerous children.
The name of the cult is Young Sei Kyo, “Eternal World Religion”, alternately referred to as Young Seng Kyo, “Eternal Life Religion”. It’s a syncretic mishmash of Christianity, Buddhism, and the indigenous Confucian-Shaman Cheondo Kyo–“Religion of the Heavenly Way”.
Prefiguring today’s multicultural fusion-cuisine religion, Choi claims that he has attained Buddhist nirvana, theosis of the Christian holy ghost, and realization of the divinity of humanity of Cheondo Kyo. For good measure, he also claims to be the incarnation of the Matreiya (future) Buddha.
He also seems to have been something of a charismatic channel. After the assassination of Park’s wife, Choi wrote several letters of solace to Park. In one of them, he says, “Anytime you want to hear your mother’s voice, you can hear her through me. She has told me ‘My daughter is naive and foolish, and she is grieving. Tell her this’.”
In March of 1975, Park Geun Hye resolves to meet him. According to reports, Choi Tae-min does convincingly channel Park’s mother, eerily replicating her voice, her mannerisms, and language. The deal is sealed and Choi is brought into the inner circle of the Blue House.
Not long after his involvement with Park, Choi creates a patriotic “National Salvation” Volunteer Foundation, and asks Park to be the figurehead president of it. This foundation coordinates with Choi’s “Sae Ma Um” or “New Spirit/New Heart” volunteer movement, a derivative of Park Chung Hee’s New Community (“Sae Ma Eul”) movement. This is where Park cuts her teeth on governance and politics, where she is befriended by Choi’s daughter, Choi Soon sil, and where critics argue, she was groomed to be a puppet of Choi. The New Spirit Movement foundation becomes a hotbed of influence peddling, bribery, and scandal, but survives through its close association with Park Geun Hye. From 1975 until October 26th, 1979, Park appears 137 times in public; 64 times of those times she is recorded in public with Choi. In his presence, she looks deliriously happy. Unsubstantiated rumors abound of physical intimacy, even concubinage and children. Park also pens her first book, with a study guide, “The Way of the New Spirit”, a collection of her speeches promoting Choi’s ideas; half a million copies are sold.
Eventually, the close, incestuous relationship, and the unceasing scandals invoke the wrath of Park the father, who turns his intelligence agencies on Choi, and according to rumor, “orders him castrated”, and “to never be seen near the blue house”. The daughter is reputed to have wept and pleaded for his survival. Not long after that, Park himself is assassinated. Park’s loyal retainer, General Chun Doo Hwan becomes the new dictator. Chun re-investigates Choi, disappears him for 6 months (according to sources to a remote frontline military post). Park again goes to bat for him, and Choi returns again in from the cold. Like Rasputin, Choi seems to have 9 lives.
The Shaman’s Daughter
In 1989, Park’s second daughter and son write a twelve-page plea to President Roh Tae Woo, president of Korea at the time, warning about the deleterious and harmful effects Choi is having on the family. “He is trying to separate us…If we don’t save her [my sister, Park Geun Hye] from him now, she will be forever under his thumb, and will be forever a victim of his designs.”
Nothing comes of this letter, and Park eventually does become completely estranged from her siblings, but continues to defend Choi, stating, “As a pastor, he helped the country through a dark period. When my father passed away, he helped me psychologically, and comforted me”.
Choi eventually passes away in 1994 but passes the mantle of his cult to his 5th daughter Choi Soon-sil, who, it is claimed, has inherited his spiritual powers and fortune-telling skills. Choi’s husband, Jung Yoon Hoi, becomes a top aide to Park, managing the return of Park to the political stage, facilitating her career at the national assembly and then guiding her through her successful run for the presidency.
Still, rumors about her relations with Choi abound. During her first pass at the presidency, the US ambassador sees fit to pen this diplomatic cable: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor [Choi Tae-min] had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
In 2012, Park is elected to the Presidency on a conservative platform in a nail-biter of an election. Subsequent investigation establishes that she won the election through the interference of the South Korean Military. Unleashing its Electronic/cyber Warfare Division, it flooded the blogosphere with attacks on her rivals while playing up and promoting Park to the fullest. Park wins by a narrow margin, and the leading opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP) politicians who reveal and challenge this electronic coup are sent to prison as “impure [seditious] elements” on trumped up charges.
Journalists are hounded, labor activists jailed, demonstrations banned or restricted, and the country, while regressing to the dictatorial days of the father Park’s era, seems to be lurching from disaster to disaster. Neoliberal market fundamentalism becomes the order of the day—a promise that Park made in 2007 before Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government–and a series of predictable social, economic, and political train wrecks ensue. Most notably, a deregulated passenger ferry, overloaded with several hundred tons of iron rebar destined for the construction of a military base on Jeju Island–itself massively opposed–capsizes abruptly. Three hundred young students on a field trip are trapped in a sinking boat. For seven hours, top staff await orders from the President’s office on how to proceed. The president, Park Geun Hye, however, is nowhere to be found in the middle of this national disaster; no rescue is attempted, and all of the students drown. No accounting for this lapse of leadership is ever made. The country is livid. The examples of irrational, foolish, ill-advised governance continue to multiply, but the president herself seems aloof, distant and out of touch. Occult rumors swirl again, as the day of the Ferry disaster is the anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min.
Horse Dancing, Gangnam Style
In Seoul’s nouveaux-riche Gangnam district, in an office in the swanky Non-Hyun Dong neighborhood, Choi Soon-sil, the Shaman’s daughter has set up shop. Not satisfied to stage-manage and stage-mother Park’s career over her nineteen years of politics or staff Park’s inner circle with her closest confidantes, including her ex-husband, her trainer, her former host boy-cum-designer boyfriend, Choi reputedly meddles in policy, personnel and public affairs while prodigiously enriching herself. Among the allegations reported in the Korean press:
- Receiving access to classified material: Choi received daily the 10-inch thick confidential presidential briefing binders at her office, hand-delivered by presidential secretary Jung Ho Sung, and purportedly gave back direction on policy.
- Rewriting speeches: Choi reviewed and edited, sometimes rewrote, presidential speeches, including the historic Dresden speech that laid out South Korea’s policy towards the North.
- Dictating policy towards North Korea: According to The Hankyoreh, Choi was “involved in developing major policies related to unification, foreign affairs and security, including the resumption of [hostile] propaganda broadcasts to North Korea and the complete shutdown of the [north-south cooperative] Kaesong Industrial Complex.” Choi seems to have made predictions about the demise of North Korea (“within two years”) and directed North policy on this basis. This accounts for some of the contradictions and mixed signals from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Unification, and actual policy execution.
- Personnel & outfit choices: Choi meddled in the selection of cabinet officials and top policy appointees, as well the choice of outfits and accessories for Park, both with the same head-scratching shoddiness, irrationality and poor fit.
- Shamanizing public events: Park, purportedly under the influence of Choi, introduced never-before-seen shamanistic elements (colored silk purses, shamanistic rituals, odd spirit-inflected language) into national public events and addresses.
- Corruption and influence peddling: Choi allegedly single-handedly planned and then appropriated the $150 million culture promotion budget of the Korean Ministry for Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which was then doled out to her cronies.
- Mystical shakedowns: Choi created two foundations, the Mir(u) Foundation and K Sports Foundation (the letters put together form, Miruk, the Korean for the Matreiya Buddha, the future Buddha that Choi Tae-min claimed to be). With these two foundations, she received $72 million in charitable donations from the most powerful conglomerates in South Korea (Samsung, LG, Hyundai) in a matter of days – extraordinary acts of largesse, corruption or magic. The money from these foundations was then channeled into a series of shell companies and properties, all linked to Choi.
- Academic Doping: Choi’s daughter, a competitive equestrian rider, was given a suspect admission into an elite women’s college, which suddenly created a special entrance allowance for students who excel in equestrian sports. Her grades also seem inflated despite her very poor school attendance. For Koreans, who pursue academic success with the same passion that other countries devote to sports, the mere innuendo of a stacked college entrance raises national outrage comparable to a wholesale doping scandal.
- Deadly Horseplay: Last but not least, when Choi’s daughter came in second in a national equestrian competition in 2013, Park fired eight senior officials of the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism, and the Korean Equestrian Foundation was investigated and audited.
In the words to the lyrics to the song, “Above those bastards who run, are those who fly.” Choi was flying high, horse-dancing, riding above the crowd, pulling strings, and accountable to no-one, the invisible regent behind the throne.
Satirical images distributed of Choi horse-riding Park will turn out to be accurate metaphors.
Gangnam style, indeed.
Pitchforks, Tumbrels, Guillotines
First whispers, innuendo, then reports, then allegations and investigations, especially regarding the Mir & K Sports foundations, the scandal of the women’s college admission, multiply. At first, Park fights back indignantly, arguing that such reports constitute “serious illegal acts threatening the constitutional order”–code words for sedition, and hinting serious retaliation. When reports circulate that the president’s speeches are vetted by Choi, the president’s chief of staff, Lee Wong-Jung, steps forth and denies it outright: “That’s insane…it’s not something that could have happened, even in a feudal era.” Unfortunately for him, a discarded, unencrypted Galaxy Tablet belonging to Choi Soon-sil is found–with selfies on it–and is shown to contain speeches, secret policy documents, texts, emails. After having denied for weeks such interference, Park is forced into a classic crisis management move–to make a rapid, short–90 second–admission of guilt. She stares down the cameras and mournfully states that she did indeed consult on “some documents’ with Choi (“an old friend who helped me through a difficult time”) who had minor input on speeches before and “for some time” after she became president, but that she did this with a “pure heart”. It turns out to be a strategic misstep.
Within hours, the entire country, astounded at confirmation of the interference, is baying for her head. It is the day of the 37th anniversary of her father’s assassination.
Park’s popularity rating drops to 14%, stalwart conservative newspapers call for her resignation, her own party demands an investigation, and a massive, 30,000-strong candlelight rally ensues, calling on the president to step down.
Years of pent-up fury at the Park Administration – the stolen election, the sinking of the Sewol Ferry, the planned installation of the THAAD anti-missile system (escalating conflict with China), the universally condemned construction of the Jeju military base, the ongoing labor repression (including the imprisonment of the head of the Korean Confederation Trade Unions Han Sang Kyun), the killing of the protesting farmer Baek Nam-gi, the attack on and dismemberment of the Unified Progressive Party, the catastrophic MERS epidemic, the forced revision of history textbooks, corruption, nepotism, incompetence, bad governance, and the rotten economy – all boils over. Pictures of Choi horse-riding Park or manipulating her like a marionette are distributed everywhere. A young woman holds up a neatly hand-written sign, “Korea is a democracy. Please step down.”
On October 29th, the prosecutor’s office raids the office of the president and her aides. Computers and binders are taken. Park asks for the heads of her top 10 chief advisors, including her closest gatekeeper triumvirate. A warrant is issued for Choi’s arrest. The chickens have finally come home to roost.
The End of Dynasty
In 1365, the despondent King Kong Min of the Koryo dynasty passes matters of state to a monk, Shin Don, after his wife dies. Six years later, the monk is charged with treason and is eventually deposed. The king, against his own initial wishes, orders the execution of the monk. Not long after the King himself is murdered by his own bodyguards, and two decades later, the 500 year dynasty comes to an end.
Not since King Kong Min has a religious-political scandal had such a convoluted, turgid and far-reaching effect on a political era. In the fast-moving scenario, heads are rolling rapidly. Park’s top advisors are being decimated. Woo Byung-woo (senior secretary for civil affairs; already mired in scandal), Kim Sung Woo (senior secretary for public affairs), Lee Won-jong (chief of staff), Ahn Chong-bum (senior secretary for policy coordination), Kim Jae-won, (senior secretary for political affairs), Jeong Ho-seong (personal secretary for decades); Lee Jae-man (senior secretary for administrative affairs), and Ahn Bong-geun (senior secretary for public relations) have been carted away in tumbrils. In particular, Jeong Ho-seong, Lee Jae-man and Ahn Bong-geun, referred to as the three “doorknobs (gatekeepers) to the president,” have been removed from the presidential door.
It’s unclear at this point where this Saturday night massacre will end: whether enough bodies can be put between her and her enemies to save Park, or whether she will also join them on a tumbril. Choi Soon-sil is under arrest—huge crowds baying for her blood–and most of the circle around her are in flight or under investigation. Technically, Park herself has immunity from arrest, and impeachment would not pass the supreme court stacked with her appointees. Still, all that people know is that the legitimacy crisis has boiled over, and token gestures or words will no longer appease.
Some or all geopolitical considerations – THAAD, North Korea policy, China policy, the Comfort Women issue, the US Pivot to Asia, TPP – may come back on the table for reconsideration or reconfiguration in this moment of transition.
Capitalist modernity, the social critic Raymond Williams commented, is characterized not by its technology but by its magical thinking and its irrational, superstitious nature. “Animal spirits,” “commodity fetishism,” “invisible hand,” “market equilibrium,” mystification and reification, and other folklore of neoclassical economics paper over the fragility, irrationality, violence, precarity, and turbulence of the system. As if further proof of that was necessary, this scandal of mayhem and mediumship may ultimately presage the end of the authoritarian Park dynasty and its necrotic, neoliberal trainwreck of a political economy.
Or it may be a temporary reprieve, a short tussle between warring internal factions as they play out the ugly endgame of Capital. Nevertheless, the superstitious, mystical underbelly of the authoritarian capitalist state has been exposed in its particularity, and the maggots infesting the carcass have tumbled out. Whether the neoliberal zombie can be revived—through magic, shamanic incantation, or media mystification–remains to be seen. Koreans pray the bewitchment may be over.
The global geopolitical and human stakes could not be higher.
By K.J. Noh