I made my Korea Times debut a few days ago thanks to reporter Jon Dunbar who was kind enough to attend a presentation I gave last Saturday on my favorite subject. He then sent me some questions regarding how cults here typically recruit. He then sent some follow-up questions based on my initial responses, and then he wrote his piece around selected quotes.
His article is online here, and my full responses are below. They’re not all that polished as we had a deadline to meet and I wanted to give him enough material to draw upon. I always go overboard when asked about cults. But first a few pictures from last Saturday’s talk and one nice screenshot from The Korea Times.
So, interview wise, what I want from you is a list of signs you might be getting recruited by a cult, directed at foreign readers not Korean. You can keep it in point form, and we’ll try to categorise them down and expand on them once we’ve got that figured out.
An obvious first introduction is a street approach in which you may be asked to fill out a survey, donate to a charity (that may not actually exist), asked for directions as a precursor to more questions, or invited to some kind of event. The power of the internet is not lost on cults with many advertising events on Facebook and Meet-up. There is also the possibility that a recruitment attempt will come from a co-worker or an acquaintance already involved. Those are naturally less suspicious than a cold street approach by a couple of young Korean girls asking directions to a location anyone with a smart phone could find in two seconds.
Door knocking is also utilized, but I suspect the main goal of such activities has more to do with keeping members busy rather than actual recruiting. The rejection and scorn such activities often receive helps to cement the “us versus them” mindset that helps cults retain members.
First contact with a Bible-based cult can be through an invitation to join a Bible study class or through a secular-looking front group (language lessons, cultural events, music performances, sports teams, and dance or modeling groups etc) that precedes the offer of Bible studies. The JMS cult, led by convicted serial rapist Jeong Myeong-seok, recently advertised for female-only Bible studies in Gangnam. With the topic of violence against women being in the news a lot recently, the prospect of an all-female study group may sound safe and appealing to young women, but such a group may in fact lead women to a serial rapist. Their “secular” front groups typically involve activities and events designed to lure attractive girls such as modeling opportunities and dance classes.
Bible studies with the messianic Bible-based cults end with the revelation (stated or rather obviously implied) that the leader of that particular group is the Second Coming. Such Bible studies, in order to cement the authority and authenticity of the leader, typically disparage all other denominations and religions. Be aware of any church that claims to offer the only path to salvation and the only correct interpretation of the Bible.
Love bombing – be aware of people seeming too nice and offering an unusual amount of compliments. Friendships formed at the onset of a cultic involvement may appear wonderful at the beginning but are entirely conditional upon further attendance, and hence are not true friendships at all. The relationship was instigated under orders from above. This new person who was your suddenly your best friend last month may become the person you most want to avoid the next.
Gradual increased time commitments are another warning sign. A once a week hour-long commitment can turn into daily commitments. Sleep deprivation is easily accomplished by the holding of all-night events and very early morning services that require members waking up at 2 a.m.
An element of secrecy. Are you discouraged or warned against sharing what you have studied with others?
Are there efforts from a group you’ve recently encountered to learn where you live and work? That alone of course may not be a sign of a cultic encounter, but knowledge of where you live and work may be utilized should you have encountered a cult and decide to leave. Cults do not take rejection well, and I’ve heard many examples of cults harassing former members with numerous text messaged and phone calls as well as unannounced visits to homes and work places. Recently I’ve heard several reports of Shinchonji members following new recruits to determine where they live and their habits
If you’re studying a series of Bible lessons, who developed them? What are his/her credentials? What church do they belong to?
The Bible studies of some cults can at the beginning appear informal ala “a few people with a shared interest in a coffee shop”. You might not think that there is a whole organization behind the scenes or that “new” members may be cult members playing that role to ask the right questions and help steer discussions towards the desired topics/outcomes. In a class of 5 or 6 “students”, some or most could be working secretly with the teacher to ensure the indoctrination of one or two targets. The target is almost always unaware that a whole team of cultists are working behind the scenes to gather information to help cement him or her to the group which often initially manifests itself as just a couple of new friends. A staged meeting with a third friend who shares an interest with you can look completely spontaneous and fortuitous when it is anything but.
I have spoken to former members of JMS and Shinchonji who were not informed of the name of the “church” or its leader until well after a year of Bible studies.
Are there efforts to stop discourage you from sharing contact details with other students. While Shinchonji does stack its classes with fake students, efforts are made to stop the targets from communicating outside of the class. This reduces the risk of word spreading that it is a cult amongst the targets.
Knowledge and awareness of the groups that operate in Korea – be they homegrown or imported – can do nothing but help you determine if you or if a friend or loved one has encountered a cult. Perhaps a link to my site?
Beware of a church or center that does not display any kind of signage. If the church or center you have recently started attending has no outside signage, there may be a good reason it hides itself. Likewise, a generic sounding name is a red flag if you happen to know that the official or more common name of the organization is avoided.
When you are approached by recruiters for a charity or some cause, how can you spot a fake?
While some cults have been known to use the names of charities that do not actually exist, a fraudulent request for money on behalf of a charity can be hard to determine as the charity may exist but the money donated may not be destined for it. Five months after Mannam (a Shinchonji front) held fundraisers for a South African orphanage, the orphanage hadn’t received any money, nor had they knowledge of the fundraising events. Registered charities may also have dubious backgrounds. Qi Wellness, a charity registered in the United Kingdom, is actually the branch of a Korean doomsday cult whose entire leadership was convicted of fraud in 1999.
Can you talk more about the Mannam example that foreigners face? How do you know your Korean classes/running club/etc is a cult? Points include they set you up for photo ops and are always recording you. And they might not be proselytising you. But why not?
Shinchonji seems unable to hold an event however small either under its own name or under the guise of a front without having photographers and videographers on hand to document everything. If you’re at an event or in a class at which you feel a photographer is being obtrusive, you may have encountered Shinchonji. The cult also likes to get photos of people doing the Shinchonji victory-sign gesture which involves making a v-shape/pistol-shape with the index finger and thumb. You’re definitely surrounded by cultists if you see that sign made.
Individuals do not necessarily need to be indoctrinated into a cult in order to be of use to it. Individuals with no knowledge of the cultic connections of a front can speak sincerely and honestly (and from a position of total ignorance) about the benefits and positive aspects of a front group. An astounding example is a video endorsement from Commander Simon Foy (since retired) who was head of Homicide and Serious Crimes at Scotland Yard. He, along with many other police personnel, was love bombed by the previously mentioned Korean doomsday cult with free massages to help reduce stress. It wouldn’t have served the cult’s interests to try to recruit him and other police personnel into the deeper quasi-religious/doomsdayish levels of the cult. The benefits the cult received from Commander Simon Foy’s endorsement were only possible because the target was deliberately kept in the dark about the cult’s criminal history.
Likewise, we saw in 2012 a similar and much larger campaign by Shinchonji’s former main front group Mannam Volunteer Association. A plethora of clubs were set up a year beforehand in order to help fill Jamsil Olympic Stadium for the leader of Shinchonji’s giant birthday party. The event was also essentially a giant set for a propaganda films that are then used to promote the cult; hence, we have reports of attendees being told not to leave their seats. Some were even told by staff to delay trips to toilets 20 meters away. That almost year-long love bombing campaign, which offered free Korean lessons, free cooking classes, cultural events, sporting events, and everything other kind of event you can think of, was successful because targets were not exposed to the cult proper. Hence, the targets helped the cult counter cult allegations as they were able to honestly say they had never heard any mention of Shinchonji and its Bible studies. Ergo, Mannam wasn’t a cult – or so their failed reasoning went. While the Mannam front group was exposed as a Shinchonji front (and subsequently abandoned), the Olympic Stadium was filled, those propaganda films were made, and cultists were kept very busy throughout the year. Having abandoned the concept of volunteering as a base for its main front group, Shinchonji then turned to “world peace” and interfaith religious events.
One final question: what kind of person do they go after? Are people who are approached and who tend to be fooled at first stupider than average?Also, do you know off hand the number people cite when saying the number of “messiahs” in Korea?
Cults go after whoever could be of use to them: from the young who have time and energy and children to birth to the old with a lifetime of wealth accumulation behind them. Some cults want a full-time workforce, so students are encouraged to drop out of university, while other cults prize recruits from prestigious universities and want them in place to recruit. Different groups have different target demographics according to their goals and needs. I’ve heard it said by the ill-informed that only the young and vulnerable are targeted, yet married people with children are not immune. Cults play on emotions and that is something we are all vulnerable to.
Micheal Breen in his book “The Koreans” at least 70 messiah in the early 1960s
Shamanism in Korean Christianity by Jang Nam Hyuck “At this time (2004), Korea has more than 50 self-proclaimed Gods or Jesusus.