South Korean President Park Geun-hye is fighting for her political life in the face of mounting protests over the inappropriate conduct of a friend and close confidante, Choi Soon-sil. Media reports and police investigations suggest that Choi used her access to and influence over the president to embezzle money and handle classified documents, charges that she denies.
"Despite having no official position and no security clearance," details my colleague Anna Fifield, "Choi seems to have advised Park on everything from her wardrobe to speeches about the dream of reunification with North Korea."
The two women have been friends for decades, as Fifield wrote: "Choi is the daughter of the late Choi Tae-min, a kind of shaman-fortune teller who was close to Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who ruled South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s."
Choi's father, who founded a religious cult that melds Christianity and Buddhism and other practices, was likened in a leaked U.S. State Department cable to a "Korean Rasputin." After Park's mother was assassinated, the elder Choi reportedly conveyed the mother's messages to the younger Park from the afterlife.
His daughter is alleged to have formed a group of "eight fairies" — unofficial advisers who, like Choi, won all sorts of access to the president. As the investigation continues, the specter of corruption may doom Park's presidency. Her term ends next year. But for all the alleged misdeeds, Park is hardly the only world leader in the modern era to confide in those who dabble in the occult.
As long as lords held sway over their subjects, seers and mendicants have been on hand, whispering encouragement to power. Before the modern era, the fate of whole kingdoms could rest on the augurs of soothsayers and the prophecies of astrologers. Such figures lingered into the 20th century: Most infamously, Grigoriy Rasputin, a wandering peasant and self-proclaimed holy man, infiltrated the court of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and wielded unusual power over him and his wife until other irked royals arranged for his assassination.
Rasputin's name became shorthand for an adviser shrouded in mystery and bent on various self-serving schemes.
Until its dissolution in the past decade, the Nepali monarchy maintained a whole cadre of court astrologers and advisers, who, among other things, persuaded the country's ruling royals to conduct affairs of state only on auspicious days. In 2008, the ousted King Gyanendra was compelled to consult astrologers during his house hunt after it became clear that he would have to leave the sprawling royal palace in Kathmandu.
Across Asia, people in power, both in business and politics, lean on the advice of an array of mystics. In South Korea, myriad prominent executives employ fortune tellers to help determine their professional and personal affairs.
"Shamans, known locally as mudangs, offer guidance with 'pungsu,' a concept similar to feng shui that considers the human relationship to nature and physical space," explained Korean writer Young-ha Kim. "The position of a building in relation to mountains and rivers is seen as important, and a shaman may be consulted about the location of a house or a grave."
This practice finds its echoes elsewhere in East Asia, in rural China and among the gleaming skyscrapers of Hong Kong.
The former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a fearsome leader who critics accused of turning into a would-be autocrat, had his own astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who supposedly predicted Rajapaksa's earlier electoral victories in 2005 and 2010 and persuaded the Sri Lankan leader to announce snap elections in 2015.
When Rajapaksa lost, his astrologer suggested that the defeat had been written in the stars.
“If I did not tell him he was going to win, he would have been psychologically shattered. His defeat would have been much worse,” Abeygunawardena told Agence France-Presse after the election. “In this case, the opponent’s horoscope is more powerful than that of Our Sir.”
In parts of West Africa, widespread local belief in juju — or a kind of voodoo, or magic — surfaces periodically in scandals and political intrigues. In 2014, a senior adviser to Sierra Leone's president summoned top traditional healers after finding a "hex" made of horns, cowrie shells, monkey hair and other bits of animal matter by her house. In 2008, the former president of Nigeria accused a political rival of scheming with an Islamic seer over the circumstances of his death.
Of course, while it's easy to cherry pick such examples from far-flung corners of the world, one shouldn't forget the long tradition of spirituality infusing the White House — and the religious men who found favor and access, as well. Evangelical priests such as the Rev. Billy Graham, for example, had a hold on successive administrations.
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