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South Korean Fortunetellers Gather For Peek at Tomorrow

A major power transition is under way in the United States, and the global economy is reeling from the ongoing financial crisis. So who knows what the future will bring? Perhaps South Korea's fortunetellers do. They held a conference this week in Seoul where, as VOA's Kurt Achin reports, many take traditional means of divining the future quite seriously.

A lot of people have questions about the future - things like whether the markets will go up or down, or whether there will be war or peace in some of the world's hot spots.

The answer could lie in the shape of a mountain landscape - or the shape of President-elect Barack Obama's face - or, in a 1,000-year-old Chinese chart of the planets' movements.

Those are just a few tools of the trade for fortune tellers here in South Korea. Lee Sang-hyun is one of several hundred who attended a fortune tellers' conference Friday in Seoul. He says he has been divining the future for 20 years, but the tradition is much older.

He says "Yuk Hak," the Korean style of Asian fortune telling, has influenced Korean habits and thought for more than 1,000 years.

Fortune telling is never far away in modern Seoul life. The city has dozens of fortune telling cafes, offering a glimpse of the future alongside your cappucino. Plastic tents, just large enough to fit a fortune teller and a customer or two, are a common sight on downtown sidewalks.

Lee says Korean fortune tellers choose from a variety of specialties.

He says there is "gung-hap," which is the art of matching personality types. Or "poong-su" - similar to the Chinese "feng shui" - for reading the landscape. There is the face reading art of "kwan-sang." Or, there is "saju" - the art of reading palms and studying the month, day, and hour you were born for clues of destiny.

Some of the fortune tellers at Friday's conference, not surprisingly, made predictions.

Choi Wan-young has spent 35 years practicing the "joo-yuk" - the study of basic elements like earth, fire, and water.

He says signs point to an improvement in relations between South Korea and the United States. Moreover, he says, a global financial recovery will start soon after February 4.

Bae Kum-san is the chairman of the Korean Fortuneteller's Commission. He has some good news, and some bad news, for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

He says Kim Jong Il, widely believed to be recovering from a stroke, will be fine until the year 2010. After that, says Bae, he will be "not so fine."

Fortune tellers like Bae have no shortage of clients. Koreans frequently consult them when they are getting married, moving residence, running for public office, or starting a new job. In fact, fortune telling was one of the few industries that truly thrived during the 1997 financial crisis here in South Korea.