SEOUL— Byun Mi-kyong sat quietly with her hands in her lap as she listened closely to every word the fortune teller said about her daughter's chances of getting into the right university.
Dealing with intensely competitive college entrance exams has driven South Korean students to despair, and sometimes to suicide, as they fight for the few places in the best programs that are seen as the key to a successful career.
Anxious parents have long sought hints from fortune tellers about how well their children will do in school. But now Byun and others are turning to divination for specific guidance on picking the most promising activities, courses and colleges.
In the heat of summer, Byun went to the shaman's house in Seongnam, a city on the outskirts of Seoul, giving her daughter's name and date of birth to the softly spoken man dressed in a traditional, white Korean costume.
Alongside a large shrine with golden statues and colorful paintings of deities, she sat across a small table from the shaman as he leafed through the books of his trade.
To Byun's great relief, he said her daughter would get into her dream university, especially one with a name starting with J, D or K. The 19-year-old wants to go to Joongang, known officially as Chung-Ang University, to study nursing.
“I could not have a heart-to-heart talk with anybody about this but I can speak frankly about what's in my mind to him,” Byun said after the 10-minute consultation.
“It was a big help to me.”
The shamans, men and women who perform traditional religious rites, say parents asking about their children's academic and career prospects - at 50,000 to 100,000 won ($45 to $90) an hour - usually take the advice they get very seriously.
“If I give guidance to parents, they just follow it blindly for their kids,” said professor-turned-shaman Choi Kuing-hun.
Rain or shine?
Shamans base their recommendations on “saju”, or fate, determined by the four “pillars” of a person's life: the year, month, day and time of their birth.
Every bit helps, it would seem, when aiming for a spot at university.
Up to 600,000 students take the college entrance exams each year and their preparations are grueling. Teenagers put in long hours as they pack into cram schools after a day of classes.
But the pressure takes its toll. Nearly 40 percent of teenagers said they felt suicidal, according to government data.
Hoping to ease some of the stress, Song Byung-chang has advised nearly 16,000 people over the last 19 years. Parents turn to shamans, he said, because luck plays a big part in a complicated admissions process and his guidance can help families minimize the risks.
“If I have to go to an outdoor event next week, I would probably check the weather forecast,” Song said, adding that fortune telling “is exactly like that.”
Kim Do-kyung started college preparations early for her 13-year-old son, consulting Song about the boy's best subjects. Word of success spreads fast among parents keen for any hint of help, she said.
“Many parents come here by word of mouth because some moms said their child did better than expected,” she said.