A Spectacle of Magic, Witchcraft and Politics in South Korea

The winner of best Halloween costume for 2016 may be Choi Soon-sil, whose revelation as an influential shaman-like advisor to South Korean President Park Geun-hye has created a massive scandal. Here is a recent video of Soon-sil being mobbed by reporters:


The political spectacle of this event is a mysterious one of Rasputin-like proportions.

From a North American vantage point, it is difficult to know exactly what is going on and what is being lost in translation. At least three things are clear:

First, there are protests and popular calls for President Guen-hye to step down due to accusations that advisor Soon-sil has had an inappropriate amount of influence upon the leader’s decisions. Second, the President’s popularity rating is now very low. It’s been reported in the 10%-20% range during the last week by a variety of news outlets. Finally, a discourse of witchcraft is being invoked in the political commentary surrounding this event. Law Professor Joung Hwang, affiliated with Korea’s Hangkuk University of Foreign Studies, described Soon-sil as “… a kind of witch who has bewitched our president and has managed to run the state affairs.”

Wow. Is this 2016? This talk of witchcraft and bewitchment sounds more like the language one might read in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a biography of Grigori Rasputin, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. To talk of witches certainly fuels the political spectacle of this event. It also seems like a superstitious and inflammatory statement, particularly coming from a professor of law. As I watch the video of the press mobbing Soon-sil above, I can’t help but see those continuous camera flashes as flames of fire. Burn her, they cry. She’s a witch!

Soon-sil will eventually be outed as a con artist who has done something fraudulent and illegal or not. Her story is certainly a mysterious and compelling one that has something to teach the us about belief and superstition in the 21st century. Labelling her a witch, however, is foolish.

Halloween was yesterday.

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