Mysticism does not necessarily lead to despotism, but many despots frequent mystics: to get a psychic safety net for high wire acts of political violence, to prescribe emotional narcotics to put the conscience to sleep, 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 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.
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, 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 tinpot dictator in 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 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 the 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 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 Korean "miracle".
In 1974, a disaffected Japanese-Korean would attempt to assassinate 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. 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 a 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 and security chief 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, 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 the South Korea's military police, most likely party or witness to some of the atrocity-inducing policies of the South Korean Rhee government.
In 1954, he abruptly entered a monastery and disappeared. Later in the 60's he held 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 himself 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, he establishes a cult with a handful of followers, 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.
Not long after his involvement with Park, Choi creates a patriotic "National Salvation" 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. Parks 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 pleading letter 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, whom 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 conservative platform in a nail-biter of an election. Subsequent investigation establishes that she won the election through the interference of South Korean Military. Unleashing its Electronic/Cyber Warfare Division, the blogosphere is flooded with attacks on her rivals while Park is played up and promoted to the fullest. Park wins by a narrow margin, and the leading UPP opposition party politicians that 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'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 contested--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, and 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, all-advised governance continue to multiply but the president herself seems aloof, distant, out of touch. Occult rumors swirl again, as the day of the disaster is the anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min.
Horse Dancing, Gang Nam Style
In Seoul's Nouveaux-Riche Gang Nam 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 Park's career over her nineteen years of politics, or to staff Park's inner circle with her closest confidantes, including her ex-husband, her trainer, her designer boyfriend, Choi receives the 10-inch thick confidential presidential daily briefing binders herself at her office, hand delivered by presidential secretary Jung Ho Sung, and gives back direction on policy.
Speeches are also reviewed and re-written, including the historic Dresden speech that lays out South Korea's policy towards the North.
According to the Hankyoreh Newspaper, Choi was "involved 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" She also meddles in the selection of cabinet officials, and chooses outfits and shoddy accessories for Park, and introduces never-before-seen shamanistic elements (colored silk purses, shamanistic rituals, odd language) into national events.
Choi also allegedly, single-handedly plans and manipulates the $150 million culture promotion budget of the Korean Ministry for Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which is then doled out to cronies. She also creates 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 Taemin claimed to be). With these two foundations, she shakes down the most powerful conglomerates in South Korea (Samsung, LG, Hyundai) for $ 72 million in charitable donations in a matter of days, extraordinary acts of largesse, corruption, or magic.
Last but not least, Choi's daughter, a competitive equestrian rider, is given a suspect admission into an elite women's college, which suddenly creates a special entrance category for students who excel in equestrian sports. When Choi’s daughter comes in second in a national equestrian competition in 2013, Park fires eight senior officials of the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism, and the Korean Equestrian Foundation is 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.
Satyrical images distributed of Choi horse-riding Park will turn out to be accurate metaphors. Gang Nam 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 with Choi on "some documents', "an old friend who helped me through a difficult time', and 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, and a massive, 30,000 strong candle light rally ensues, calling on the president to step down. Years of pent-up fury at the Park Administration: the sinking of Sewol Ferry, the installation of the THAAD anti-missile system (creating conflict with China), the construction of a military base in Jeju Island, the ongoing labor repression (including the imprisonment of the head of the KCTU labor union), the killing of the protesting farmer Paek Nam Gi, the attack and dismemberment of the United Progressive Party, the catastrophic MERS epidemic, the revision of history textbooks, corruption, incompetence, bad governance, and the rotten economy, all of this boils over. Pictures of Choi horse-riding Park, or manipulating her like are marionette, are distributed everywhere. A young woman holds up a neat 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. 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. The monk, creating scandal after scandal, is eventually deposed. Six years later, the king, against his own initial wishes, executes the monk. Not long after the King himself is murdered, and two decades later, the 500-year-old dynasty comes to an end.
Not since King Kong Min has a religious-political scandal had such a 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 (already mired in scandal), Kim Sung Woo, 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. The “doorknobs (gatekeepers) to the president,” Jeong Ho-seong, Lee Jae-man and Ahn Bong-geun 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. Technically Park 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.
Geopolitical considerations—THAAD, North Korea policy, China policy, the Comfort Women issue, the US Pivot to Asia, TPP, some or all of these things may come back on the table for reconsideration or reconfiguration, in this moment of transition.
Late Capitalism, the social critic Raymond Williams commented, is characterized not simply by its violence, but also by its irrational, superstitious nature. As if further proof of that was necessary, this Korean scandal of mayhem and mediumship may ultimately presage the end of the authoritarian Park dynasty and its necrotic, neoliberal train wreck of political economy.
Or it may be a temporary reprieve, a short tussle between warring internal factions as they play out the endgame of capital. Nevertheless, the superstitious, mystical underbelly of Korea’s authoritarian capitalist state has been exposed, 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. The global geopolitical and human stakes could not be higher.