Alleged links to an anal acupuncturist and a Rasputin-like preacher could prove damaging for a conservative politician hoping to become South Korea’s next president.
Yoon Seok-youl, the front-runner to represent the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) in next year’s election, faces growing questions from his colleagues over his alleged reliance on superstitious practices.
The latest allegations surround video footage that shows Yoon chatting to the unlicensed anal acupuncturist Lee Byeong-hwan, and claims by the mysterious preacher known as Cheongong that he is advising the 60-year-old former prosecutor general.
Yoon is already under scrutiny after viewers of a television debate noticed he had inscribed the Chinese character Wang (meaning ‘King’) on the palm of his hand.
Footage of the debate sparked allegations from rivals that Yoon was relying on a talisman to win the debate. (Yoon has denied this, though his rebuttal – he claimed a supporter had written on his hands days earlier – only led to further criticism, from opponents who accused him of ignoring hygiene during a pandemic).
In a subsequent television debate, conducted on Tuesday with other PPP presidential hopefuls, one of Yoon’s competitors, Yoo Seung-min, demanded to know whether Yoon had met either the “mysterious preacher” Cheongong or Lee Byeong-hwan, whom he described as being “known to perform acupuncture on a strange and particular area”.
He also asked Yoon about news reports that he had asked a fortune-teller using the I Ching , the Chinese Book of Changes that influenced Confucianism and Taoism, to advise him on future courses of political action.
Yoon admitted meeting both the preacher and the fortune-teller, but said he was not acquainted with the anal acupuncturist.
However, Yoon’s answer was put in doubt when Yoo’s campaign pointed to video footage in which the anal acupuncturist is seen chatting with Yoon and introducing him to others during Yoon’s first campaign outing in June.
Asked to comment, the anal acupuncturist Lee said on Facebook that it was he who had approached Yoon to offer his help and said they were “hardly acquainted”.
Lee has reportedly turned up at political events for other political heavyweights such as the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential contender, Lee Nak-yon, minor People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
It is unclear whether the politicians had requested Lee’s presence or whether Lee appeared on his own accord.
The mysterious preacher Cheongong, however, has claimed stronger ties, telling the press in March that he regularly advised Yoon on courses of political action.
Cheongong has been likened by some observers to Rasputin, the self-proclaimed holy man who held sway over the family of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia. Cheongong claims he directly communicates spirits and gods and that he became enlightened after spending many years meditating in the mountains.
Cheongong, wearing white robes and sporting a long grey beard and ponytail, told journalists on Thursday that he regularly advised Yoon and that he had told Yoon that he should step down as prosecutor general, which Yoon did last March.
During the TV debate, asked whether he, his wife and his mother-in-law frequently saw fortune-tellers and shamans, Yoon said: “I seldom meet such people but I don’t know whether my mother-in-law does”.
“Some women in this country consult fortune-tellers, though,” he added, inviting further criticism that he was denigrating Korean women as superstitious.
Hitting rock bottom?
Yoon’s campaign have responded by accusing rivals of lowering the standard of discourse, “turning the TV debate into a quiz show about the names of psychics” and “spreading fake news”.
But Yoo’s spokesperson, Lee Soo-hee, said the bottom line remained and the questions were for Yoon to answer: “Why do we keep hearing the names of fortune-tellers and shamans in connection with Yoon Seok-youl?”
Local media reported that Yoon and Yoo had been involved in an angry altercation immediately after the debate.
Sociology Professor Chun Sang-chin at Sogang University lamented that precious airtime had been hijacked by a debate on soothsayers, acupuncturists and strange preachers.
“The TV debates gave an impression that politics has stagnated as all other sectors in the country are moving forward with vivacity,” he said.
Hong Joon-pyo, who within the PPP is thought to be Yoon’s nearest rival, said on Facebook on Thursday that the nomination race was being turned into a “comedy themed on superstitions”.
Said Hong: “The opposition party’s nomination race is becoming outlandish. There are superstitions, a talisman, an anal acupuncturist and finally an enlightened sage. Disgusting!”
The election is expected to be held on March 9, 2022.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.