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Korean shamans blame Christian extremists for raid on royal tomb

By John Gittings in Seoul, The Guardian, Thursday 15 July 1999

Only the magpies hopping around the tomb of Sejong, Korea’s greatest ancient king, saw the steel spikes and iron knives being driven into the grassy mound. Then, last week, three statues of the mythical founder of Korea, Tangun—the mountain god who married a bear—were beheaded. Both attacks took place in Yoju, an hour’s drive from Seoul, and they have grabbed headlines ever since.

South Korea has plenty of pressing concerns: the Asian economic crisis is still biting, the ruling coalition is split and North Korea is repaying Seoul’s sunshine policy towards it with provocation.

But the discovery in April that the tombs of the 15th-century king and his wife had been vandalised with the tools used by traditional shamans sent a shockwave throughout the country, according to the Korean Times.

The tomb of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the national hero who fought off Japanese invaders in the late 16th century, was also desecrated. A female mudang (shaman), Yang Sun-ja, confessed, saying she had planted the weapons in a ritual to cure herself of a severe headache after seeing Admiral Yi in her dreams. But the police said they suspected a deeper motive.

And last week’s decapitation of the Tangun statues delivered a new shock: it is being blamed on Christian extremists who oppose a campaign to reassert the beliefs of Korean mythology in a country where their faith is dominant.

Kim Keum-hwa, one of the country’s most famous shamans, believes the Yoju attacks are connected and part of a plot to discredit shamanism.

Shamans worship kings and generals, she says. [Yang] must have committed her cruel crime under the influence of others. To stab a tomb means cutting the bloodline of the family and the nation. It is what the Japanese did to destroy our history when they occupied Korea.

Korean shamanism is related to Siberian rites but has developed differently over the past 2,000 years. Its practitioners claim to communicate with natural or historical spirits through trances, and to effect cures, bring good luck and foresee the future.

They are no strangers to persecution. Mudang were victimised by Confucian rulers and denounced as primitive by Christian missionaries. They were driven underground during the Japanese occupation and repressed by post-war military regimes.

But shaman rituals are now designated by the state as intangible cultural assets, and mudang such as Ms Kim are paid subsidies as holders of such assets for life.

Ms Kim learnt her craft from her grandmother in North Korea after suffering an illness at 12 which indicated that she had been chosen by the spirits.

I was coughing blood, she recalls. I heard horses’ hooves and I saw that the moon had fallen to the ground. My grandmother did not want me to follow her, but once I was caught by the spirits she had no alternative.

Ms Kim is much in demand for her performance of the kut—an extended rite similar to a dramatic performance.

The kut has many faces, she says. It can comfort the souls of those who have died. It can seek the best for a village or the nation. It can wish good fortune at the change of season.

Ms Kim’s family fled south after the Korean war to find that shamanism was suppressed under the dictator Park Chung-hee. Ms Kim started performing the kut at folk festivals, taking care to conceal the ritual’s religious character.

In the 80s the decline of military rule and a search for national identity led to a shamanistic revival. Mudang were invited to perform at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Scholars say the revival should not be regarded as exotic or artificial, but as an adaptation of traditional culture to modern life.

Ms Kim agrees. People these days turn their eyes to Korean things and seek their roots.

She says the beliefs still survive in the north: a defector told her he had sought advice from a local shaman before running the risk of escaping.

North Korea has also sought to appropriate the myth of Tangun, claiming to have discovered his tomb. A birthplace has been invented for the northern leader, Kim Jong-il, on Mount Paekdu—the sacred site where Tangun is supposed to have been born.

And public awareness of the myth is being promoted in South Korea. Statues of Tangun have been donated to 300 schools by a cultural foundation intent on fostering the country’s founding values.

The statues destroyed at Yoju belonged to this group, whose project has been denounced as idolatry by militant Christians.