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In Korea, Shamanism Remains Important In The North And South

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Korea was divided into two countries in 1945. North Korea became a totalitarian - South Korea, an affluent democracy. But you might be surprised at some of the things they still have in common.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on an old, often overlooked religion that's practiced in both states.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a hillside temple in Seoul, a female shaman whirls around in circles wielding ceremonial knives, fans and bells. She's initiating a new shaman. The shaman's aim is to throw open the doors of the spirit world so that the gods of sun, moon and mountains and the spirits of ancestors and children may enter the initiate. During a break in the rituals, the shaman, Jeong Soon-deok, says the ceremony is going smoothly.

JEONG SOON-DEOK: (Through interpreter) When we were welcoming the heavenly spirits of the sun and the moon, they descended to him in the form of light.

KUHN: Jeong explains the meaning of the bells she sometimes uses in the ceremony.

JEONG: (Through interpreter) The sound of the bells awakens the universe. It also symbolizes the opening of the gate of words for the shaman.

KUHN: The opening of the gate of words is the climax of the ceremony. Finally, one spirit possesses and speaks through the shaman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEONG: (Singing in non-English language).

KUHN: Shamanism was practiced in Korea long before the arrival of Buddhism and Christianity. Today, some South Koreans see it as a cultural treasure. Others consider it primitive and an embarrassment to their modern cosmopolitan society.

Kim Dong-kyu is a scholar of religion at Sogang University in Seoul. He says that Korean shamanism seeks to explain both natural and supernatural influences on human life.

KIM DONG-KYU: (Through interpreter) When someone suffers, there can be two explanations. 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.

KUHN: So shamans communicate with the supernatural world through rituals and ceremonies. They also predict destiny by telling fortunes based on the Chinese calendar system. They also help clients to choose names for children, serve as matchmakers, or pick auspicious dates for weddings, moving house or opening a business.

Kim Dong-kyu says that just as South Koreans rely on shamans for these things, so do North Koreans.

KIM: (Through interpreter) In South Korea, shamanistic rituals are visually flashy and involve a lot of sound, whereas in the North, from what I've heard, they are very small-scale and quieter.

KUHN: In fact, they're completely underground. That's because shamanism is considered an illegal superstition whose practitioners can be jailed or executed.

KIM: (Through interpreters) Or shamans there simply do fortunetelling, which can still be effective in explaining the reasons for the clients' problems.

KUHN: That's the situation of Lee Ye-joo, who lives in Chungnam province south of Seoul. She told fortunes in North Korea before defecting to the South in 2006 at the age of 33. She explains that she had to be careful about her fortunetelling. Then again, so did her clients.

LEE YE-JOO: (Through interpreter) All people who came to me were officials. They were all linked to other officials who introduced me to them. So if one of them got me into trouble, I could tell on all the others.

KUHN: Her journey out of North Korea was tough. She was sold by human traffickers into a marriage in China, which she later escaped. But she says it was worth it to escape North Korea, where she struggled to survive and make it to the South.

LEE: (Through interpreter) It's so good to live in this country. You can make money at 3 or 5 in the morning if you just try. I'm in this great world now.

KUHN: But since arriving in the South, she's had some unusual health problems.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I've been feeling unwell for about five years, and the hospitals couldn't diagnose the problem. So I visited a shaman and was told that the spirit has entered my body, the spirit of my grandmother.

KUHN: She was also told that the only cure for her was to become a shaman herself. So she's preparing for it. She believes it will help her to tell fortunes more accurately.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION AMBIENCE)

KUHN: 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. You could say that puts Lee Ye-joo, who is both a defector and a shaman in training, in the interesting position of being born again and again.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.