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Shamanism Endures In Both Koreas — But In The North, Shamans Risk Arrest Or Worse

Shaman Jeong Soon-deok  (center) dances during the initiation ceremony for a new shaman (left) at a temple in Seoul.
Shaman Jeong Soon-deok (center) dances during the initiation ceremony for a new shaman (left) at a temple in Seoul.

SEOUL — The cold light of winter shines down on a hillside temple in Seoul. It gleams on the billowing red, yellow and blue robes of shaman Jeong Soon-deok, as she twirls in circles. It glints off the ceremonial knives, bells and fans she waves through the air.

The man standing before her in simple white robes is her newest initiate. Jeong's aim is to throw open the doors of the spirit world so the gods of sun, moon and mountains and the spirits of ancestors and children may enter him.

An estimated 50,000 shamanic ceremonies are held each year in greater Seoul, according to Kim Dong-kyu, a scholar of religion at Sogang University. Some South Koreans see shamanism — which predates Buddhism and Christianity — as a vibrant cultural treasure, while others consider it a primitive embarrassment to their modern, cosmopolitan society. But its appeal endures — in North Korea, too, where it is illegal.

Shamanic rituals are intended to bring good harvests, help villages or communities prosper and assist the souls of the dead in their journey into the afterlife. Shamans tell fortunes based on the Chinese calendar system and communication with the spirit world. They help clients choose names for children, serve as matchmakers and pick auspicious dates for weddings, moving house or opening businesses.

During a break in the ceremony, Jeong reports that this initiation is going smoothly.

"When we were welcoming the heavenly spirits of the sun and moon, they descended to him in the form of light," she explains.

Parts of the ritual, known in Korean as naerim-gut, are accompanied by singing or the playing of drums, gongs and wind instruments — sometimes fast and raucous, at other times slow and hypnotic. Jeong says the bells she uses have a special significance.

"The sound of the bells awakens the universe," she explains. "It also symbolizes the opening of the gate of words for the shaman."

That's the climax of the ceremony, when one spirit finally possesses and speaks through the shaman. This can take some time, and the initiation ceremonies are often all-day affairs with plenty of eating and socializing. Some temples have several ceremonies in progress at the same time.

Kim says shamanism, combining elements of animism, ancestor worship and folk religion, seeks to explain both natural and supernatural influences on human life.

"When someone suffers, there can be two explanations," he says. "One is that it's the ancestors or spirits that are intervening and inflicting pain. The other is that it's the person's destiny to suffer."

North Koreans rely on shamans for similar reasons, Kim says. But they must do so in secret.

"In South Korea, shamanistic rituals are visually flashy and involve a lot of sound," he says, "whereas in the North, from what I've heard, they are very small-scale and quieter."

In fact, shamanism in the North is completely underground and without formal organization, defectors and rights groups report. Practitioners can be jailed, sent to reeducation and labor camps or executed for taking part in what's considered an illegal superstition.

Shaman Jeong Soon-deok (rear) performs ritual purification of a new shaman during an initiation ceremony at a temple in Seoul.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Shaman Jeong Soon-deok (rear) performs ritual purification of a new shaman during an initiation ceremony at a temple in Seoul.

A survey of religious persecution in North Korea released last October by the U.K.-based Korea Future Initiative found that 56 of 273 documented victims of persecution were believers in shamanism.

The State Department reported "an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang" in its 2018 report on religious freedom in North Korea, noting that "authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism... Defector reports cited an increase in party members consulting fortunetellers in order to gauge the best time to defect."

Because North Korean shamans who hold rituals risk being discovered and arrested, some "shamans there simply do fortune-telling," Kim says, "which can still be effective in explaining the reasons for clients' problems."

Lee Ye-joo told fortunes in North Korea before defecting to the South in 2006 at age 33. She now lives in Chungnam province, south of Seoul.

Participants clean up following a shamanic initiation ceremony at a temple in Seoul.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Participants clean up following a shamanic initiation ceremony at a temple in Seoul.

When she was 12, Lee began studying a book of divination called the Four Pillars of Destiny, based on the Chinese calendar system. She began telling fortunes eight years later.

"All people who came to me were officials," she recalls.

Because ordinary North Koreans "don't even have enough to eat, the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials," she explains. "They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry."

Lee built up her clientele surreptitiously, by word of mouth. She had to be careful not to get caught, she says — but then again, so did her clients.

"They were all linked to other officials who introduced me to them," she says. "So if one of them got me into trouble, I could tell on all the others."

Telling fortunes didn't pay well, so she turned to trading. She says she bought and smuggled goods out of a special trade zone to sell, often making a perilous trek through the mountains to evade authorities.

"What a relief it is not having to carry a knife," she exclaims. "In North Korea, when you carry a bundle of money, you always have to carry a knife, so you don't get robbed."

Her journey out of North Korea was harrowing. Human traffickers sold her into a marriage in China, which she later escaped. But she says her ordeal was worth it.

Lee Ye-joo, a defector from North Korea, speaks during an interview at her home in Chungnam Province, South Korea. She worked as a fortune teller in the North, where, she says, "the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials. They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry." She is training to be a shaman in the South.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Lee Ye-joo, a defector from North Korea, speaks during an interview at her home in Chungnam Province, South Korea. She worked as a fortune teller in the North, where, she says, "the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials. They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry." She is training to be a shaman in the South.

"It's so good to live in this country," she says. "You can make money at 3 or 5 in the morning, if you just try. I'm in this great world now."

But since arriving in the South, she's had some health problems that have been hard to pinpoint.

"I'd been feeling unwell for about five years, and the hospitals couldn't diagnose the problem," she says. "So I visited a shaman and was told that the spirit has entered my body, the spirit of my grandmother."

The only cure for this shinbyeong, or spiritual ailment, was for her to formally become a shaman herself.

So now Lee is preparing for her own initiation. She believes this will help her tell fortunes more accurately. Her spiritual strength as a shaman will depend on her link with her grandmother, so workers are building a temple outside her house dedicated to her grandmother's spirit.

Just as North Korean defectors begin new lives in the South, becoming a shaman is also seen as a kind of spiritual rebirth. As both a defector and a shaman in training, that puts Lee in the unusual position of being born again — and again.

Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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