Shamans in North Korea

You are now going to learn something you didn’t know about North Korea, and also something you didn’t know about Korean shamanism.

Young-il Kim, Executive
Director of PSCORE

This evening at Columbia University I heard a talk from Mr. Young-il Kim, a North Korean defector and the executive director of PSCORE, a non-profit, non-partisan NGO that works on North Korean human rights, defector education and Korean reunification.

After his talk, I asked him an unusual question: Had he ever met any mudangs (Korean shamans) or anyone who practiced traditional Korean religion in North Korea?

His answer, to my surprise, was a definitive yes. He didn’t know mudangs, per se, but he said that fortune tellers were quite common, and that many of them were imbued with shin (신), meaning divinity or god — not merely people who read astrological charts, but genuine mystics.

But how, I asked, could they survive the communism of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, where religion was forbidden?

Mr. Kim explained that the elite have personal problems just like everyone else, so they need fortune tellers too. And because they need them, they protect them.

So there you have it. Like so many of the doors that have opened to me recently, this one is only open a crack, but what little I can see beyond is fascinating.