Thanks to AsiaPundits and John Twitch for this opportunity to share some of my experiences with Korean cults.
Update May 2, 2016: Asia Pundits is down pending renewal. Interview archived here. And I’ve copied it below for safe keeping.
Editors Note A version of this interview originally appeared in Jon Twitchs zine Broke in Korea. Jon has graciously allowed Asia Pundits to reprint this interview in the hope that readers in Korea and abroad can inform themselves about the various cults that are active and originate in South Korea. Armed with this information, hopefully our loyal readers will be able to make informed decisions regarding Korean cults and their many activities, as well as understand how to interact with friends or family members who have joined such organizations.
Mannam/Shinchonji World Peace Festival
Background on Peter Daley
Originally from Australia, Peter first moved to Korea at the end 2002 after two-year stints in Japan and the UK, and he has just moved to Seoul earlier this year after eight years in Daegu. Six months after moving to Korea Peter realized quite suddenly that his roommate, several staff members at his English academy, and most of his adult students were followers of fugitive Jung Myeong-seok who was at the time (he has since been arrested and sentenced) wanted for rape by INTERPOL and Korean authorities. A former Moonie, he had established a cult, known as JMS, that concerns itself with nothing but rape.
At the time there was very little English information available despite the existence of branches in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia (including Peters hometown of Canberra), and New Zealand. As an outsider living so close to the base of the cult, Peter was perfectly placed to gather information in order to help rectify the lack of English material. That need was made clearer to him when just a few weeks after first learning about JMS, it held an event at the University of British Columbia. Peters interest in JMS soon led to the realization that there are many similar groups operating in Korea, and over the years his fascination and disgust has only grown stronger.
Peter started a site that grew into www.jmscult.com. The largest part of his site, www.jmscult.com/forum, contains source materials, testimonies (from both sides), articles, videos, photos, and copies of posts from password protected forums for senior JMS members. Peter also operates the YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/JMSCult. In the 10 years since starting his site, he has been threatened at work, manhandled, followed by Mannam “security guards”, and his email was hacked by an American member of yet another Korean cult. With the recent emergence of the Mannam/Shinchonji cult and its obsession with foreigners here in Korea, Peter doubts that the fun times are anywhere near from being over.
Broke: What was your first experience in Korea with a, uh, fringe religion?
Peter: Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Korea, a couple of nice young ladies invited me to lunch. Joining us for that lunch were four of their Jehovah Witness friends (three of them males) and their Bibles. I left before lunch.
Broke: How did you first encounter JMS, and what got you to pay attention?
Peter: My first year in Korea (2003) was spent in Geumsan, a small town south of Daejon. Upon arrival my roommate and fellow teacher joined a local church that held services outside town at a secluded mountain retreat called Wolmyeong Dong. A few months later I found myself at that retreat after a friend invited me hiking. I was asked several times if I studied the Bible and each time my negative answer was met with surprise. “Then why are you here?” “She invited me hiking.” There was no hiking.
Most of the 2,000 in attendance were female university students. That was nice, but their Beatlemania-like reaction to a photo of Jeong Myeong-seok, their absent leader, shown on a giant screen at 2 am was quite disturbing. I discovered later he was hiding in Asia wanted for rape by INTERPOL and Korean authorities.
What really got me interested was the fact that there was almost no English information about JMS at the time despite branches worldwide, an upcoming event at the University of British Columbia, and a fugitive leader. And there was my roommate who quite the cult around the same time. Her former cultist friends followed her around town, waited for her at regulat haunts, and told her God would kill someone in her family for her betrayal. She almost had a nervous breakdown and spent many nights in her room crying. I gained a lot of motivation from witnessing that and began the site which grew into jmscult.com.
Broke: For our more lascivious readers, can you explain why I call their leader the Rape Messiah?
Broke: I seem to recall you said that Jung Myung-seok was holed up in your town. Can you explain that situation, how you knew, and the events leading up to his arrest?
Peter: Sorry, I think you’re remembering that wrong. I lived in his hometown in 2003, but he had left Korea several years earlier. He was eventually arrested in China in 2007, eight years after fleeing Korea. During those years he spent time in Hong Kong, Taiwain, and China with early short stays in Europe and America. He was arrested in Hong Kong in 2003 for illegal entry after members of the Korean anti-JMS NGO Exodus tracked him down. He was granted bail and subsequently disappeared. Japanese media reported a sighting of Jeong in Costa Rica in early 2007, and there is footage of police with machine guns searching for him. Several months later he was arrested in China. He was deported back to Korea where he was found guilty of raping several members and given a rather measly ten-year sentence.
Broke: What was the impact on the cult, with their Rape Messiah in jail?
Peter: An American member told me at the time that they were all in shock. They really believed he would be cleared despite eight years on the run and rape allegations from every Asian country he spent time in. But that shock was short-lived as the leadership soon put its spin on events: the trial was rigged, the judges and media biased, the victims later recanted their testimonies, and my favorite “Jesus was persecuted too”. The positive was that he could no rape young women. Aside from that the cult carried on as normal. They were used to an absent Messiah.
Broke: How important was your role in all of this?
Peter: I had nothing to do with his arrest, but my site was mentioned in a few news reports. Turkish reports carried several photos from my site which was a nice surprise. My site has certainly helped people leave and stopped others from becoming further involved.
Broke: The first I heard of your activities was when you posted on Expat Korea about busloads of cultists coming to your work. What was all that about?
Peter: That was a Jungshim, a doomsday cult based near Hongchun, Kangwando. In 1999 its two founders, Mo Haeng-ryong and his wife Park Gwi-dal along with 44 senior members were arrested for defrauding its members. The couples were found guilty and sentenced to ten years jail. According to the BBC the fraud amounted to $90 million. That’s a lot.
In 2008 the England’s Telegraph newspaper began investigating Ki Health (now called Innersound), Jungshim’s London branch. After Ki Health was informed of the upcoming article for their response, they attempted to remove critical material from the Internet, most of which was on my site. A female member pretending to be one of my students with a scheduling problem called to schedule a meeting. She arrived with seven elderly Korean men wearing expensive suits. I braced myself for a very serious scheduling conflict.
My visitors identified themselves as representatives of Jungshim and hand delivered a letter from Ki Health which denied any relationship to Jungshim and threatened to sue me for suggesting they were. My guests repeated the legal threats and denied any association with Ki Health. They ordered me to remove material from my site immediately and if I refused busloads of Jungshim members were at that very moment on their way to my place of work, Keimyung University, to protest. They promised to call off the buses if I surrendered then and there. I secretly hoped the buses would arrive, but they never did. They also threatened to sue me and to get me fired. A slight physical altercation followed. After talking to my boss, who was very concerned for my safety, I removed the material from my site. There’s a very informative thread on Rick Ross’s cult awareness site if you want to read the material I removed from my site.
Broke: More recently, you turned your attention toward Mannam and Shinchonji Church of Jesus (SCJ). How did that get started?
Peter: I was contacted by a Mannam recruiter through my job as International Relations Coordinator at Keimyung in October 2011. We met for lunch and I was asked to help them devise ways to bring foreigners to their wonderful events. The brochure she gave raised a few alarm bells as did her requests. I asked her if Mannam was related to any kind of church, she responded with a very clear no. I didn’t quite believe her, but apart from a few cursory Google searches which didn’t yield much I left it at that. She later told me she joined Mannam fully aware that SCJ leader Man Hee Lee was its leader. I guess she didn’t think that constituted a connection to a church.
July 2012 Mr. Paper Tiger on the Expat Korea site made the connection between Mannam and the SCJ cult. A week earlier I had read reports of Man Hee Lee’s “I’m the Messiah and We’re Already in the Afterlife” American tour, but I didn’t connect him with Mannam. By then Mannamers were everywhere inviting foreigners (and only foreigners) to free picnics, free Korean lessons, free discos, and free everything else. Had we won some cosmic lottery, or were these free events serving the cause of the parent cult?
I came across a Korean news report about Mannam’s connection to SCJ and I asked Nathan Schwartzman, who formerly worked for asiancorrespondent.com, to translate it. His translation was read quite widely and it encouraged others to do further research. Zachery Downey in particular did some great work and Michael Aronson (the Seoul Subway Song guy) brought it the attention of his fans. Word spread and Mannam went into a justified panic. I should point out that Kyla Polanski and Ahrum Lee, an English Education major, found the connection earlier and wrote about their experiences on the Three Wise Monkeys site and on www.englishforums.com.
Peter: Four. The first on August 17, 2012 consisted of a free bus to Gumi where free food was served and free badges distributed for the benefit of the many Mannam cameras present. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the Koreans present where Mannam/SCJ members. It was a manufactured event in an environment totally controlled by the cult. I left after about an hour, turned off by the Dokdo booth where little Korean children were encouraged to put little Korean flags on little models of Dokdo. I thought I had escaped, but on the way to the station a Korean male pulled up in a car beside me. “Would you like to go to a cool party for foreigners?”
I attended three events the first weekend in September. A “Fun Fun Fun 70s/80s Disco” at Yeouidou whose sole purpose was to distribute more tickets to the upcoming Sept. 16 event. Security guards with secret-service like ear pieces were present to ensure Koreans not involved with SCJ/Mannam could not gain entry. The next event was a 10-kilometer run for charity co-hosted by the Seoul Flyers Running Club and Mannam International Running Club, a club populated by several SCJ members. The third event was a “Fun Fun Fun Festival” by Daegu Stadium. Only foreigners from non-English speaking countries were invited, a direct result of growing awareness amongst native English speakers that Mannam was a SCJ front. Again the focus was on getting people to the Sept. 16 event.
Broke: Why should people care that SCJ is pulling the strings? Why not accept all the free stuff and just pose for the pictures?
Peter: Well I’m all for free stuff, but cults don’t give away free stuff. Sure you may gain some few free meals, T-shirts, and some conditional friendships, but the cult wants something in return. Mannam wanted to fill Seoul Olympic Stadium for its leader’s giant birthday party and ensuing promotional videos. Such videos only serve to help SCJ further its cause, which is essentially the enrichment of its leader at the expense of its followers. That doesn’t bother everyone. I’ve come across expats who care only about the free Mannam soccer balls they get to kick around on weekends. Participation in Mannam aids SCJ’s indoctrination of members. As a demographic primarily here to teach the youth of Korea, the last thing we should be doing is aiding their indoctrination into a cult.
Broke: What has been your favorite moment/anecdote/statement that came out of this whole Mannam/SCJ affair?
Peter: The sad-puppy-dog look on the faces of Mannam Running Club members when their request for the obligatory group photo was met with a loud collective no by members of the Seoul Flyers Running Club.
Broke: Your actions in concert with several others have certainly succeeded in disrupting Mannams activities. Is it too soon to call it a victory? (insert your light meets light pun here)
Peter: Well when you consider Scientology is still going strong and that Aum Shinrikyo still exists after gassing the Tokyo subways in 1995, I think a clear victory where we see the group disbanded is unrealistic. Hopefully we have succeeded in raising awareness that Mannam isn’t what it appears to be and awareness of SCJ and Man Hee Lee, the leader of both organizations. Someone leaving the group is a victory. Someone choosing not to take part in a Mannam event is a victory. Anytime information is made available a cult wants hidden is a victory.
Broke: Youve been very open about your actual identity. Do you ever fear for your safety, privacy, or livelihood for your activities?
Peter: Being threatened at my place of work sure came as a shock, but apart from that no. There’s a certain freedom that comes with using your real name you don’t have to worry about covering your tracks, and it does force you to be more accountable for the material you put online. We’ve seen a few examples of intimidation from Shinchonji and Mannam recently and those just provide further motivation to share more information. I may regret that attitude one day, but until then cest la vie.
Broke: What advice would you give to someone whos being bothered by a cult? For instance, getting solicited in public, or having their door knocked on.
Peter: I think those activities are more designed to keep members busy rather than to recruit. If you are bothered by them, learn the Korean word for cult (사이비 교회). They hate that. If there is one thing we should learn from the whole Mannam fiasco is that invitations to join cults are not always so obvious. Sophisticated cults will offer what people want. Another lesson is that direct recruitment may not be the goal. If a cult can get what it wants from you without indoctrinating you to believe their messiah is immortal, it will. I’m guessing most who attended Man Hee Lee’s birthday party in September via Mannam had never heard of hm. Yet they’re in his propaganda videos cheering as though they believe he is the immortal messiah he claims to be. General rule of thumb is to be suspicious of unsolicited offers from strangers.
Broke: What about for someone in your position, whos for lack of a better word engaged in cult-busting? What works? What doesnt?
Peter: The more information the better. A significant amount of material from a variety of sources can be very effective in helping people leave cults and stopping others from further commitments.You never know what comment, photo, video, or even a joke will help flip that switch in a cult member’s head. I don’t seek online arguments with members, but they sometimes happen. While they might not help the person you’re arguing with, there’s always the possibility someone else will see it and see their group in a different light as a result.
Broke: How should you conduct yourself in the presence of cult members? Are there any rules you go by?
Peter: If you’re trying to help someone leave a group, labeling their group cult is usually counter-productive. One guy in Germany spent two years in the cult with the goal of getting her out.. Helping someone leave can be very easy or almost impossible depending on their level of involvement and how valuable the member is the cult. If you’re trying to get some questions answered, it’s better to not be aggressive and just ask natural inquisitive questions. Members of some cults can be quite open about their beliefs and practices when asked nicely even though their group may hide such details.
Broke: Do you deal with a lot of people who are in cults or who have lost family members to cults?
Peter: Yes, I’m in contact with several families at present who live in Western countries and have children under the influence of Korean cults. It’s heartbreaking because there are no easy answers. Imagine your daughter is convinced a serial rapist is the messiah and efforts to warn her result in her believing you are under the influence of Satan. There’s not much I can do except provide as much information and advice as possible, and connect them with others in the same position and with people who can help like specialist counselors. For many parents, it simply becomes a waiting game. The best they can do is not give the cult reason to turn their child against them, something I hear SCJ is particularly skilled at, and patiently wait for their child to realize they’ve been deceived. It can be a long and stressful wait.
Broke: Ive heard it said that the word cult is used as a pejorative by more mainstream churches. What are your thoughts on that?
Peter: Some churches do use the term to disparage other groups with different beliefs. The term “destructive cult” doesn’t concern a group’s beliefs, but their practices such as deceptive recruiting, psychological persuasion, exploitation of members, and an unaccountable leadership which claims to be the sole source of soul/life saving knowledge.
The “all religions are cults” argument shows complete ignorance of the subject. The difference between a benign church not led by a sociopath and a destructive cult is the difference between the flu and Ebola.
Broke: Presumably youre not chasing after every little cult. What makes you decide to look into a cult? What makes you take action?
Peter: Exposing lesser known groups is more worthwhile than adding to the information on well-known groups like Scientology and the Moonies. I’ve been hearing a lot about the Church of the Heavenly Ajumma lately (하나님의교회 세계복음선교협회). Her husband was another Korean messiah who died a very unmessiahly death: he choked on a rice cake. His wife took over messiah duties upon his death and called herself the Heavenly Mother. It’s nice to see a woman getting into the male-dominated field of Korean messiahshipping, but I’ve heard some disturbing stories about that group.
Broke: Are you actively looking for the next cult to lock horns with?