By one reckoning there are at least active 300 cults in South Korea. According to the Korean National Council of Churches, there were about 100 pseudo-religious cults with an estimated 300,000 followers in South Korea in the early 2000s. Some of these cults have been accused of using violence to maintain obedience among their members and bilking followers out of large sums of money.

AFP reported: “South Korea has proven fertile ground for religious groups with strong, unambiguous ideologies that offered comfort and salvation that appealed strongly during times of deep uncertainty. Recent versions have claimed a unique knowledge of the path to material and spiritual prosperity – a message that resonates in a highly competitive and status-focused society. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2018]

“Religious devotion is widespread in technologically advanced South Korea. Most belong to mainstream churches, which can accumulate wealth and influence with tens of thousands of followers donating as much as 10 per cent of their income. But fringe groups are also widespread – experts say around 60 people in the country claim to be divine – and some have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion, and other behaviour associated with cults worldwide.

“There’s no reliable data on how many cults currently exist in South Korea, but there are a large number of fringe churches and groups — estimates range from dozens to several hundred — who have attracted the label. The most sinister have been linked to criminality as serious as systematic rape. Many groups are Messianic, with a charismatic leader claiming a god-like status, and also highly Korea-centric, espousing a form of spiritual nationalism with the Koreans as God’s chosen people. [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016]

“According to Park Hyung-tak, head of the Korea Christian Heresy Research Institute, around two million people are followers of cults. “There are some 60 Christian-based cult leaders in this country who claim to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, or God Himself,” he said. “Many cults point to megachurches mired in corruption and other scandals in order to highlight their own presumed purity and attract believers.”

Defending the groups, Sung Hae-young, a professor of Religious Studies at Seoul National University, said the groups and their followers have a right to believe, preach and proselytise as they choose, saying: “Established churches with so-called traditional theologies use the terms ‘cult’ and ‘pseudo-religion’ to denounce sects and organisations that hold different doctrines from them,” Sung says. “In a multi-religious society like ours, it can be misleading and dangerous to easily use these terms when identifying different groups.” [Source: David Lee, South China Morning Post, May 18, 2019]

New Religions in South Korea

More benign cults and indigenous religions found in South Korea include Ch'ondogyo (See Below), Won Buddhism, Taesun Chinnihoe and T'ongilygyo. Practitioners of Tangun, a native folk religion, pay homage to their ancestors by piling rocks on 1,500 stone pillars. Taejonggyo, which has as its central creed the worship of Tangun, legendary founder of the Korean nation. Chungsanggyo, founded in the early twentieth century, emphasizes magical practices and the creation of a paradise on earth. It is divided into a great number of competing branches. Wonbulgyo, or Won Buddhism, attempts to combine traditional Buddhist doctrine with a modern concern for social reform and revitalization. There are also a number of small sects which have sprung up around Mount Kyeryong in South Ch'ungch'ong Province, the supposed future site of the founding of a new dynasty originally prophesied in the eighteenth century. Some theologians have advocated new theologies focusing on the plight of the underprivileged minjung (the "masses") and/or women. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Several new religions derive their inspiration from Christianity. The Chondogwan, or Evangelical Church, was founded by Pak T'ae-son. Pak originally was a Presbyterian, but was expelled from the church for heresy in the 1950s after claiming for himself unique spiritual power. By 1972 his followers numbered as many as 700,000 people, and he built several "Christian towns," established a large church network, and managed several industrial enterprises. *

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: ““Korea is a country of many religions and belief systems that fall into three main categories: "established," "newly rising," and "popular." "Established" religions include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. "Newly rising" religions include the Unification Church and several other sects that are derived from Christianity, as well as variants of Buddhism and the unique Korean Religion of the Heavenly Way (Ch'ondokyo). "Popular" religions include shamanism, which is the latter-day manifestation of the ancient spirit worship that has been part of Korean life since the dawn of civilization. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Additional belief systems derive from Chinese popular religions such as the cult of Guanyu, the God of War, and popular sects of Taoism. A commonly found vestige of Korean popular religions is the pair of carved posts, resembling totem poles, that are often found at entrances to parks and villages, one reading "Great General of All Under Heaven," and the other reading "Great Female General of the Underworld." Though the poles are now mere decorations, they refer to a tradition of guardian gods that were stationed to defend the premises from evil spirits.

What Is a Cult and Why So Many in Korea

John Power wrote in The Diplomat: The definition of a cult is not uncontroversial, in Korea and elsewhere, with followers typically rejecting the pejorative term. Timothy Lee, an expert in Evangelicalism in Korea at Brite Divinity School in Texas, said that contemporary historians typically avoid “value judgments on religious phenomena.” He did, however, offer several possible criteria for making the determination. “I would say when seeking to determine whether a religious group is a cult or a legitimate church, one has to, among others, consider these three criteria: the freedom with which one can affiliate and disaffiliate with the group, the transparency in its leadership structure, and the group’s attitude toward larger society, with a cult assuming a much more exclusivist and condemnatory attitude toward society.” Certainly Korean fringe churches to have attracted the label have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion, and other behavior associated with cults worldwide. The most sinister have been linked to criminality as serious as systematic rape and even murder. [Source: John Power, The Diplomat, June 17, 2014]

Why are there so many religious cults in Korea? AFP reported: There are numerous theories but a number of experts suggest cults (and religion in general) flourished during traumatic periods in modern Korean history — the 1910-45 Japanese colonial period, the 1950-53 Korean war and the decades of military rule that followed it. Religious groups with strong, unambiguous ideologies that offered comfort and salvation appealed strongly to people struggling with a crisis of national identity during times of deep uncertainty. The more modern versions have claimed a unique knowledge of the path to material and spiritual prosperity — a message that resonates in a highly competitive and status-focused society. [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016]

Tark Ji-il, a professor at Busan Presbyterian University and expert on cults in Korea, whose own father was murdered by a member of another cult in 1994, told The Diplomat. he believes that South Korea is unique among Asian and developing countries for the prevalence of such groups. In his book “The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies,” journalist Michael Breen reported that one church minister in the early 1960s identified some 70 Koreans who claimed to be the messiah and had followers. [Source: John Power, The Diplomat, June 17, 2014]

David Lee wrote in South China Morning: “For all his criticism of these fringe groups,” Jo Mit-eum, a 35-year-old pastor who investigates such groups, “concedes their appeal reveals a grim truth about South Korean society, and the way the groups address a search for meaning not found elsewhere. He notes that about 70 per cent of South Koreans in fringe churches were previously members of more traditional congregations. “We cannot deny that these groups offer a community and a sense of belonging at a time when our country has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries and people are addicted to work or studying,” he says. [Source: David Lee, South China Morning Post, May 18, 2019]

“Jo also notes the parallels in the psychology of people who join these fringe groups with the pathologies of addiction. “They have similar mental states as those addicted to drugs and gambling,” he says. “In all these issues dealing with addiction, experts agree that the most important healing factor is to find a community. “Does our current society and our churches have the ability to create and foster this type of community for people in need? This might be a big reason people are heading towards these fringe churches. “It’s important to note that members in these groups face persecution together from society, churches, their family and friends. So it’s inevitable that their bonds get stronger the more they are attacked from outside.” All these cult leaders know deep inside that they are swindlers.”


Ch'ondogyo is generally regarded as the first of Korea's "new religions." It is a synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist, shamanistic, Daoist, and Catholic influences. In one survey 0.1 percent of South Koreans — about 50,000 people — said they belonged to Chondogyo. There are probably more than that and the religion had a larger following in the past.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Ch'ondogyo (the Teaching of the Heavenly Way), which began as Tonghak (Eastern Learning), founded by Ch'oe Che U in 1860, is a syncretistic religion that grew on the grassroots level. "Humanity and heaven are one and the same" is its basic tenet, which emphasizes human dignity and gender equality. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Ch'ondogyo's basic beliefs include the essential equality of all human beings. Each person must be treated with respect because all persons "contain divinity;" there is "God in man." Moreover, men and women must sincerely cultivate themselves in order to bring forth and express this divinity in their lives. Self-perfection, not ritual and ceremony, is the way to salvation. Although Ch'oe and his followers did not attempt to overthrow the social order and establish a radical egalitarianism, the revolutionary potential of Ch'ondogyo is evident in these basic ideas, which appealed especially to poor people who were told that they, along with scholars and high officials, could achieve salvation through effort. There is reason to believe that Ch'ondogyo had an important role in the development of democratic and anti-authoritarian thought in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ch'ondogyo's antecedent, the Tonghak Movement, received renewed interest among many Korean intellectuals. *

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”:Ch'oe Che'u's religious ideas were an interesting mix of Chinese Taoism, Confucianism, and a smattering of shamanism and Christianity. As his movement developed it became known as Tonghak, or "Eastern Learning," to distinguish it from Catholicism, or "Western Learning" {Sohak), which at the time was seen as a threatening heresy. A basic belief of Tonghak was that common people have rights and should be their own rulers, a belief expressed in the slogan "Innaech'on," which means "People are Heaven," or, more accurately, "People are their own gods."[Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Ch'ondokyo, the Tonghak Movement and Korean Rebelliousness

Ch'ondogyo grew out of the Tonghak Movement (also called Eastern Learning Movement) established by Ch'oe Cheu , a man of yangban background who claimed to have experienced a mystic encounter with God, who told him to preach to all the world. Ch'oe was executed by the government as a heretic in 1863, but not before he had acquired a number of followers and had committed his ideas to writing. Tonghak spread among the poor people of Korea's villages, especially in the Cholla region, and was the cause of a revolt against the royal government in 1894. While some members of the Tonghak Movement — renamed Ch'ondogyo (Teachings of the Heavenly Way) — supported the Japanese annexation in 1910, others opposed it. This group played a major role, along with Christians and some Confucians, in the Korean nationalist movement. In the 1920s, Ch'ondogyo sponsored Kaebyok (Creation), one of Korea's major intellectual journals during the colonial period. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”:“ Ch'ondokyo began in the 1860s as a peasant rebellion opposing a variety of policies of the Korean government. The founder, Ch'oe Che'u, found his way to advancement blocked by the fact that he was an illegitimate son, since the sons of parents who were not properly married were not allowed to take the all-important examinations that qualified men to be members of the yangban ruling class and to hold government office. He busied himself studying religion and philosophy and in 1860 he had a vision in which God ordered him to "save mankind." Korea's Confucian rulers were offended not only by Ch'oe Che'u's audacious claim that people should rule themselves but also by his refutation of the Confucian idea of hierarchy and the whole system of social inequality that prevailed in traditional Korea. Government authorities hunted Ch'oe down and put an end to his teaching by arresting him and having him put to death in 1864. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Thirty years later, the Tonghak movement rose again, this time demanding posthumous forgiveness of the founder Ch'oe Che'u and continuing his demands that peasants be given equal rights and justice under the law. The Tonghak Rebellion of the 1890s grew quickly in the southwestern provinces of Korea and the central government in Seoul was hard-pressed to control it. In addition to the grievances passed down from the earlier suppression in the 1860s, the peasants from southwestern Korea who flocked to join the Tonghak Rebellion included many small-time merchants and peddlers who were angry that the Korean government was allowing Japanese competitors into the market, creating too much competition. Ultimately the government found itself unable to put down the uprising and appealed for Chinese military assistance. This touched off the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, a war over control of Korea that ended with Japan's forcing China to renounce all interest in the peninsula and left the Koreans open, in effect, to Japanese imperialism. The Tonghak Rebellion, though not exactly forgotten in the process, thus touched off a much more fateful episode in Korean history. After the turn of the twentieth century, the Tonghak movement settled down into the Religion of the Heavenly Way, or "Ch'ondokyo." It became associated with Korean nationalism, and Tonghak leaders were significant in the Korean independence movement against Japan. Though Ch'ondokyo has never gathered enough adherents to rival Buddhism or Christianity, it has continued to be recognized in both North and South Korea as an authentic Korean religious tradition.

Won Buddhism, Hanol Church and Yeongsegyo

There are a number of Buddhism-based new religions and cults in South Korea. Among them is the Hanol Church, a religion based on the Korean word "Han," which means "one and all" and implies "brightness," "righteousness," harmony" and truth. Founded in 1965 by a Buddhist scholar named Dr. Shin Jeong-il, the religion had about 500,000 followers and maintained 150 churches in the 2000s. Describing his religion, Dr. Shin said, "Like Buddhism, it places top priority on self-awakening. But quite unlike the reclusive ways of reaching Nirvana in Buddhism, Hanol teaches active social engagement."

The Hanol religion has a political wing called the Hanist Unification Korea party as well as numerous business interests including a trading company, an angora worsted suit factory, a computer company and a car ferry operation. Dr. Shin ran for president of Korea in 1987 and lost. He has had his picture taken with former U.S. President George Bush and given gifts to Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Won-Buddhism is one of the largest new religions in South Korea. In one survey 0.3 percent of South Koreans — about 150,000 people — said they belonged to it. In the past it is said to have had over one million followers. Won is name of the Korean national currency and like the Hanol Church, the objective of the religion is not only to seek inner peace but also perform social deeds such as helping the poor an repressed. Won Buddhist programs have purchased prosthesis limbs for Afghan amputees, paid for mine sweeping operations in Cambodia, sent medicine to Bangladesh and helped Tibetans in Indian refugee camps.

Won Buddhist nuns wear black hanbok jackets and knee length skirts. The religion was founded by Sotaesan, a monk who was born in 1891 and experienced enlightenment in 1916. The religion maintain 20 dioceses, 400 temples, several organic communes and a university in Korea and has 30 temples around the world.

Ms Choi Soon-Sil, the woman at the centre of a political scandal surrounding her friendship with President Park Geun-Hye in the mid 2010s, is the daughter of late religious leader Choi Tae-Min. AFP reported: “In the early 1970s, Choi Tae-Min established his own church, Yeongsegyo (“Spiritual Life”), combining tenets of Buddhism, Christianity and shamanism. He became a mentor to a young Ms Park Geun-Hye and some media reports have suggested that his daughter and Ms Park became followers and continued to conduct certain shamanist rituals together after his death in 1994. Although Ms Park has denied the reports, they have resonated in a country with a history of cult organisations and charismatic religious leaders — some of whom have amassed enormous wealth and influence. Ms Park unequivocally denied the reports in an address to the nation. Some Korean shamans said: ‘She gives shamans a bad name’, saying Choi had tarnished their reputations [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016]

Taejong-kyo, the Cult of Tan'gun

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Taejong-kyo, the Cult of Tan'gun, “harkens back to the legendary founder of the Korean race, the god-man Tan'gun who was born of the union of a she-bear and the son of the Creator. The story of Tan'gun, who was in effect the grandson of God and whose story is Korea's foundation myth, was first written down by the Buddhist monk Ilyon in the thirteenth century. However, it was not taken seriously or given much importance until the early twentieth century, when an anti-Japanese activist named Hong'an Nach'ol had a shattering vision in which he felt himself appointed by the spirit of Tan'gun to found a religion honoring the Great Founder. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The religion, at first known as Tan'gun-kyo and then as Taejong-kyo, is at the heart of a nationalist religious movement that has lasted almost a century. Faced with persecution by the Japanese during the colonial period, the followers of Taejong-kyo exiled themselves to Manchuria for safety. Under pressure from Japanese authorities who resolved to annihilate Taejong-kyo as a threat to the Japanese emperor cult, Hong'an Nach'ol finally committed suicide. After Japan's defeat in 1945, the surviving members of Taejong-kyo returned to South Korea and eventually established a simple shrine in Seoul that contains a portrait of Tan'gun and is the site of commemorative events on Korean Foundation Day, October 3, which refers to Tan'gun's mystical birth in the year 2333 B.C.

“The importance of Taejong-kyo as the religion honoring Tan'gun has been outrun by the cult of Tan'gun that has developed in North Korea under the leadership of the late President Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Chairman Kim Jong-il. In the early 1990s the North Koreans announced that they had discovered the tomb of Tan'gun near the capital city of Pyongyang and had unearthed the bones of the god-man and his wife. The government then moved the grave to a more auspicious location and built an elaborate mausoleum for the remains of Tan'gun and his wife, apparently appropriating the authority and tradition of Tan'gun for the North Korean regime itself. There are even some who believe that Kim Il-sung's body will eventually be reburied in Tan'gun's new tomb, thereby merging the two Great Leaders.”

Good News Mission

Good News Mission is a South Korean Christian-based new religious movement founded in 1971 by Pastor Park Ock-soo (ko). It took out a large ad in the New York Times and is one of several sects regarded as a branch or splinter group of the Salvation Sect. According to the church webpage it has 178 churches in South Korea and 582 international churches. [Source: Wikipedia]

In December 2011, several college students attended an "English Camp" sponsored by Good News Mission after claiming to being misled they would be teaching English in Mexico. Instead, the students were allegedly subjected to religious lectures in ballrooms guarded by security personnel that discouraged members from leaving. One of the college students attending the event said "I was the victim of a scam.”

The Good News Mission began as a missionary school in the late 1960s. It continues to train and send missionaries and pastors; currently, they have 600 missionaries, half of which are serving overseas in areas other than Korea. The Good News Mission also hosts conferences and operates broadcast facilities, camps, the Mahanaim Cyber College, and a youth intervention ministry called the International Youth Fellowship (IYF). The ministry has been led by Pastor Ock Soo Park since 1972. The Good News Mission is Trinitarian, Reformed, and appears to teach salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, as a mission, it naturally places a strong emphasis on evangelism and reaching the lost. [Source:]

Some people, including some pastors, have left the group and call it a cult. One criticism of the ministry is that it emphasizes original sin to the exclusion of personal sin, to the point that a Christian never need confess personal sins — they were all forgiven at the cross — rather, the Christian should only confess that he has a sinful nature inherited from Adam. This comes very close to the false doctrine of sinless perfection and contradicts the teaching in 1 John 1:8 that Christians still sin. Most other complaints involve the extent of Pastor Park’s control over the organization.

Contemptible Religions and Cults in South Korea

AFP reported: “South Korean cults can have deadly consequences: in 1987, 32 members of an apocalyptic group called Odaeyang, were found dead at their headquarters in an apparent murder-suicide pact, including its leader, who was under police investigation for embezzlement. And they can influence the highest reaches of power. Choi Soon-Sil, the woman at the centre of the corruption scandal that brought down her close friend president Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of late religious leader Choi Tae-min. The elder Choi became Park’s spiritual mentor after establishing his own church, Yeongsegyo (“Spiritual Life”), combining tenets of Buddhism, Christianity and shamanism.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2018]

One of Korea's most contemptible religions is Aga-Dongsan (Children's Garden), a cult founded in 1982 by a woman named Kim Ki-soon, who was arrested in 1996 in connection with the murder of three cult members at the cult’s commune in 1987 and 1988, the embezzlement of millions of dollars, and the enslavement of cult members in sweatshops.

Another cult leader, Cho Hi Song of the Yongsaeng-kyo cult, was jailed in 1996 for embezzling members' wages and the disappearance of 23 followers. Earlier three cult members confessed to the murder of followers who tried to leave the cult in 1994 and led investigators to a garbage dump where the body of one of the victims was found In May 2004, four bodies were found in the compound of a religious sect in Shinseo, about 30 kilometers north of Seoul. Details about the deaths and the sect were not immediately revealed. It was suggested that the victims may have been murdered in a sect ritual.

The People’s Central Holy Church had 65,000 followers in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, one of its leaders was arrested and his followers stormed a television station during the middle of a broadcast, which to be taken off the air during the disturbance. There was also an End of the world Easter Cult.

Manmin Central Church

Pastor Lee Jae-rock Lee set up the Manmin Central Church in Guro, once a poor area of Seoul, with just 12 followers in 1982. In 2018 it had 130,000 members, with “a spotlight-filled auditorium, sprawling headquarters, and a website replete with claims of miracle cures.” Many of his followers regarded him as “a divine being who wields divine power.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2018]

AFP reported: “On his own website, Lee says that God has “anointed me with His power” but the Manmin Central Church has been condemned as heretical by mainstream Christian organisations, partly because of its claims to miracle healing. In one example on the church website, Barbara Vollath, a 49-year-old German, said he was born deaf but her bone cancer was cured and she gained hearing in both ears after Lee’s daughter and heiress apparent Lee Soojin prayed for her with a handkerchief he had blessed. “Through his sermons the accused has indirectly or directly suggested he is the holy spirit, deifying himself,” a judge said.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Lee, who was born in South Korea’s rural southwest, was ordained in the 1980s by Jesus Korea Holiness Church, which soon expelled him for espousing mysticism. He began his own church, which has held large evangelical gatherings in countries as various as Russia, Pakistan, Israel, Kenya and Honduras...His followers have sometimes lashed out violently to defend him. In 1999, they rampaged through MBC, a leading TV station, vandalizing broadcasting equipment and interrupting the airing of a program that investigated charges of sexual exploitation and other allegations against Mr. Lee. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 22, 2018]

“The Manmin church has websites in several languages featuring tales of miracle cures performed by Mr. Lee. Church members have been known to carry handkerchiefs blessed by Mr. Lee and to sprinkle themselves with water from a well in his hometown, believing that it possessed healing power.” In 2017 “followers of Mr. Lee placed an in an American newspaper claiming that Hurricane Irma had “died out” after Mr. Lee prayed for it to stop. In sermons available online, Mr. Lee has claimed that he was visited by people from heaven who arrived on UFOs.”

Manmin Central Church Leader Jailed for Raping Followers Who Thought He Was a God

In November 2018 Pastor Lee was “convicted of the multiple rape of eight female followers – some of whom believed he was God – and jailed for 15 years. A Few month earlier three of Lee’s followers went public, describing how he had summoned each of them to an apartment and raped them. “I was unable to turn him down,” one of them told South Korean television. “He was more than a king. He was God. Lee told another that she was now in Heaven, and to strip as Adam and Eve went naked in the Garden of Eden. “I cried as I hated to do it,” she told JTBC television. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2018]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “In its ruling a three-judge panel at the Seoul Central District Court convicted Mr. Lee of raping the eight women dozens of times between 2000 and 2014. “While attending his church from an early age, the victims were led to believe that the way to heaven lay in treating the accused like God and obeying him,” the presiding judge, Chung Moon-sung, said in the ruling. “He habitually raped and sexually violated them, abusing their inability to protest or resist his acts because of his absolute authority.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 22, 2018]

“The court said the pastor had victimized others besides the eight women who had come forward. Former members of the church have also said so. “Mr. Lee, who has denied all charges against him, stood in silence, his eyes closed, while the judge read the verdict. His followers, who packed the courtroom and spilled outside, let out a collective sigh when the sentence was announced, but Mr. Lee himself showed little emotion. During previous court appearances, he has claimed to be hard of hearing. Mr. Lee’s church and his lawyers painted the eight women as disgruntled former members who “spread lies riding the bandwagon of the #MeToo movement” after being excommunicated for breaching church rules.


Shincheonji is South Korea’s biggest Christian fringe group, with 200,000 members. Its members attend traditional churches to convert members. Consequently, many entrances of churches in South Korea have stickers stating that “Shincheonji members are not allowed inside”. Jo Mit-eum, a 35-year-old pastor, told the South China Morning Post: Shincheonji preaches to divorce from one’s spouse and other groups strongly advise people to quit their studies and jobs,” he says. “The government is not doing much to combat these groups. Since this is considered a religious issue and our country highly values the freedom of religion, pseudo-religious groups are free to do as they wish.” [Source: David Lee, South China Morning Post, May 18, 2019]

David Lee wrote in the South China Morning Post: “When Ahn So-young was 27, her parents became concerned about her all-consuming commitment to Shincheonji. They enrolled her in a counselling programme to help her break her attachment to the group. Ahn became so dejected she tried to kill herself by swallowing soap and shampoo. Anh had been a member of Shincheonji for five years. She spent all her time with the group, even handing out surveys at university to attract potential new members, and eventually quit her studies.“During my five years inside the group, I feared going home and I interacted less with my parents as I increasingly lied to them,” she says. “My contacts with school friends stopped.”

Her parents intervened and insisted she complete a month-long programme, during which counsellors studied the Bible with her to expose Shincheonji’s outlandish claims, including their insistence its leader, Lee Man-hee, now 90 and in poor health, would live forever as the second coming of Jesus Christ. Ahn, though, struggled to move on and was overcome with depression. She tried to commit suicide both during the counselling and after she returned home. Shincheonji members even visited Ahn’s house and threatened to sue her parents for coercing her into leaving the group. “I would try to jump in front of cars to end my misery,” she recalls. “My whole world was turned upside down in just a matter of days, so I was in a world of disbelief and disappointment.”

Salvation Sect (Guwonpa, Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea)

Salvation Sect — Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, or simply Evangelical Baptist Church, officially the Korean Evangelical Baptist Church — is a Christian-based new religion or cult was founded in 1962 by Yoo Byung-eun with his father-in-law, Pastor Kwon Shin-chan (1923–96). Before a name change in 1981 its name was Korean Evangelical Layman's Church. In South Korea it is commonly known as Guwonpa, meaning Salvation Sect, from the Korean term guwon meaning "salvation". Media reports on numbers of followers vary from 10,000 to as much as 200,000 members worldwide with many sources saying the church is believed to have 20,000 followers. [Source: Wikipedia]

Church doctrines teach that those who were once saved by God are completely detached from the sins they will ever commit in the future and guaranteed a path to heaven. Unlike other Christian organizations, the group is alleged to focus little on repentance ― a reason why it has been described as a cult.The church was held to be a cult by the conservative Christian denomination, the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches, in 1992. Evangelical Baptist Church is unrelated to the Korea Baptist Convention.

The Salvation Sect “began around the early 1970s. Their doctrine is influenced by the foreign missionaries,”Tark Ji-il, a professor at Busan Presbyterian University and expert on cults in Korea, told The Diplomat. “According to them, they don’t need to repent again and again. We need only one repentance. Right after realization of sin, there is no need to repent again. Because, according to them, righteous man is righteous man, even if they have committed a sin.” While Yoo is regarded simply as a church leader by some members, more devoted followers see him as a messianic figure, according to Tark. [Source: John Power, The Diplomat, June 17, 2014]

Salvation Sect Founder and the Sewon Ferry Disaster

Salvation Sect— also known as Guwonpa and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea — was back in the news again in 2014 when its leader, Yoo Byung-Eun, became the target of a nationwide manhunt. Yoo and his family ran the firm — Chonghaejin — which operated the Sewol ferry that sank in April 2014, causing the loss of more than 300 lives — most of them high school students. Yoo was charged with corruption and negligence. A US$500,000 reward for information leading to his arrest was offered. Several weeks after the tragedy Yoo’s body was found in a plum field. His body was so badly decomposed that an autopsy failed to determine the precise cause of death. [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016]

Per Liljas wrote in Time: “Known as the “millionaire with no face” because of his rare public appearances, Yoo is a notorious figure in South Korea, having been jailed for fraud for four years in the early 1990s and allegedly previously leading a religious cult. According to Chonghaejin’s audit report for last year, the company spent just US$521 on crew training, including evacuation drills. By comparison, a competitor, Daea Express Shipping, spent 20 times that amount. [Source: Per Liljas, Time, April 24, 2014]

Jung-eun Kim, Judy Kwon and Madison Park of CNN wrote: “Yoo, through his representatives, vehemently denied any connection to the Chonghaejin Marine Company in late April. His defenders, including members of his religious group, maintained that Yoo, a businessman and religious figure, was made into a scapegoat for the tragedy. Much of the blame has fallen on Sewol's operators who were accused of prioritizing profits over safety in an investigator's interim report this month. The report found that Sewol had carried double the amount of cargo allowed and that the heavy load had not been properly secured. They also found that the vessel had been licensed on falsified documents. [Source: Jung-eun Kim, Judy Kwon and Madison Park, CNN, July 22, 2014]

“For months following the sinking, Yoo defied summons to report to the prosecutor's office for questioning. Yoo was wanted for questioning with an investigation into alleged funds embezzlement, tax evasion and other irregularities that prosecutors say could have contributed to the sinking. Wanted posters including possible disguises for Yoo popped up. Even South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye weighed in, accusing Yoo's family of "mocking the law and causing public rage."

“With nearly 8,000 police officers dispatched on the case, the inability to find the septuagenarian became another source of controversy. But the search ended Tuesday when police announced Yoo's death. His body, they said, was next to an empty bottle of squalene (a type of fish oil), three empty bottles of alcohol, reading glasses, and a handwritten book titled "Dreamy Love." The man appeared to be wearing a jacket and his shoes were set next to him.”

A few months later, the New York Times reported; that Yoo’s son, “Yoo Dae-kyoon, was convicted of taking nearly US$6.8 million since 2002 from seven companies controlled by his family, including Chonghaejin Marine Company, which operated the Sewol ferry. Yoo Dae-kyoon “abused his status as a son” of his charismatic father to embezzle the money, a court in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul, said in its ruling. Prosecutors said members of the Yoo family, along with their deceased patriarch, embezzled US$169 million from a church that Yoo Byung-eun helped found and from a fleet of companies, including Chonghaejin, that were run with the use of church funds and with loyal church members installed as business executives. Two of Yoo Byung-eun’s brothers were also convicted of embezzlement on Wednesday. One, Yoo Byung-il, who was convicted of taking US$119,000 from Chonghaejin, received a suspended sentence. The other, Yoo Byung-ho, was sentenced to two years in prison for taking US$2.7 million from another family-controlled company. Thirteen executives from companies controlled by the family were convicted of aiding in the embezzlement, with four sentenced to prison terms of two to four years and the others receiving suspended sentences. A daughter of Yoo Byung-eun, Yoo Some-na, was arrested in Paris in May and is fighting extradition to South Korea. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 5, 2014]

Odaeyang Mass Suicide — or Murder

In August 1987, 32 followers of an apocalyptic cult called Odaeyang were found dead in a factory at their headquarters in Yongin, about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. in an apparent murder-suicide pact. Among them was the cult’s leader Park Soon-Ja, who was under police investigation for embezzlement, and her three children. It has never been conclusively determined whether the cult members, whose bodies were found bound and gagged, had been murdered or committed mass suicide. Followers of the group believed that the world was blighted by decadence and was coming to an end soon. The group was a branch or a splinter group of Yoo Byung-eun’s Salvation Sect (Evangelical Baptist Church). [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016; John Power, The Diplomat, June 17, 2014]

In 1987 South Korean police were investigating accusations that Park, a 48-year-old woman, had swindled 8.9 billion won (US$8.7 million) from about 220 people. Her company Odaeyang Trading Co. was a firm that fronted for a religious sect led by Park, which was a splinter group of the Salvation Sect. The case became known as the Odaeyang mass suicide. Police assumed the event was a murder–suicide pact, and the prosecution initially suspected that Yoo Byung-eun was linked to the case;but he was never charged, and the police closed the case as a mass suicide. [Source: Wikipedia]

When the case was re-opened in 1991, investigation into Odaeyang Trading Co. revealed a money trail to the company Semo Corp. run by Yoo, he was arrested and, in 1992, convicted of "habitual fraud under the mask of religion" for his role in colluding with one of his employees to collect donations from church members in the amount of 1.2 billion won (US$1.15 million) and invest them in his businesses. He served a 4-year prison term. In November 2014, the Incheon District Prosecutor's Office stated in a report that they did not find a prosecutable connection between Yoo's Evangelical Baptist Church and the Odaeyang incident.

Providence (Jesus Morning Star, JMS)

One of the largest and best-known new religions in South Korea is Providence or Jesus Morning Star (JMS) — founded by Mr Jung Myung-Seok in 1980 as a breakaway from the Unification “Moonie” Church. In 2009, Jung — who referred to himself as the Tree of Life — was jailed for 10 years for the rape and sexual assault of four female followers. Headquartered in Wol Myeong-dong (ko), the sect has also been called Jesus Morning Star (JMS), Setsuri ("Providence" in Japanese), International Christian Association (ICA), the Morning Star Church (MS Church), the Bright Moon Church, and Ae-chun Church. JMS are also the initials of the group’s leader, Jung Myung-suk. [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016; Wikipedia]

Providence (officially Christian Gospel Mission) is a Christian-based new religious. Jung was formerly a member of Unification Church and was strongly influenced by it. He founded a church that was formerly associated with Methodism but was expelled from that community. Following accusations against him by South Korean police of rape, fraud, and embezzlement, Jung fled the country in 1999 and lived as a fugitive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China before being arrested by Chinese police in May 2007. In addition to charges brought against him in South Korea, Jung was indicted on charges of sexually assaulting five women — raping three of them — during his time on the run in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China from 2001 to 2006. In April 2009, the Supreme Court of South Korea sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment.

The Feed, an Australia-based news organization, reported: Peter Daley moved to South Korea in 2003 to teach English and started the website JMS Cult after attending a Providence event. "We have this bizarre situation where a serial rapist is brought young attractive women… to him in Jail," says Mr Daley. Mr Daley has spent the last 10 years tracking Providence. The purpose of JMS Cult is to warn people about joining this group. "If you look at all their events and all their propaganda and material through the lens of a serial rapist, it all makes sense," says Mr Daley. "When I first heard about them in Australia, it was quite a shock because I encountered them on this mountain in the middle of South Korea...I read a news report that said several years ago it was estimated there were 140,000 members in Korea, but it is hard to get a grip on the numbers because it is a very secretive group." [Source: The Feed, SBS Two, 9 April 2014]

“The Feed approached Providence for an interview... After repeated attempts to interview Providence in Seoul, the group refused to be interviewed on camera. Head of external affairs, Andrew Choi, provided written responses to some of our questions, but declined to comment on specific allegations about the group’s operation in Australia: On the number of churches and members in Australia: “We do not choose to answer this question.” On the use of front groups to recruit members: “We do not agree to comply with this ‘fishing’ for information”. On flying members to visit the leader in prison: “Members fund their own travel”. On members being asked to cut of ties with family: “Denied”....The group says it has nothing to hide and that it is just like any other religious group. They say their leader is not a messiah and that the church is not a cult.

Techniques and Doctrine of Providence

According to the Daily Mail, Jung praised Hitler and members were told they would be purified by having sex with him and members were subjected to an indoctrination process, which included sleep deprivation and a restricted diet. “We had to wake up at 3am everyday to pray because they said this brought us closer to god. It's a mind control technique: when you're deprived of sleep you can't critically think,” one member said. Teachings centered on the 'Messianic' leader Jung, who was depicted as a living Deity who had been falsely accused and persecuted like Jesus Christ. [Source: Nelson Groom, Daily Mail Australia, May 20, 2016]

“Another member said: “After attending one of bible studies she was initially struck by some of their bizarre teachings - such as a holy reading of Adolf Hitler. 'Part of the teachings explored the idea of God's punishment. They said the holocaust was his mark of atonement because Jewish people killed Jesus. They told us Hitler was a vessel from god.' The same former member also said girls were pressured to dress up for Jung and refrain from talking to the opposite sex so as to be 'spiritual brides' for him.

“Another ex-member said they were recruited inside Melbourne University, where the organization is still actively recruiting 'I started recruiting for more members. I was told to look for virgins, and encouraged new members to wear white as much as possible to show Jung their purity.' Eventually her parents staged an intervention, and she was deprogrammed by a cult expert.

Andrew Choi, the groups’ spokesman said: 'Members are not pressured to refrain from speaking to the opposite sex. Male and female members interact freely with each other in both their religious and social lives...Providence does not recruit virgins. We do not recruit. We evangelise. We have evangelised people of all background, age, married, divorced, remarried, with family, pregnant, old, young, male, female and anyone else - you name it.'

Providence Recruiting

Providence recruited members and spiritual brides for its leader in Australia at shopping centers and on university campuses.The Feed reported: In 2011, Liz was shopping in the Canberra Centre when a Korean woman asked if she would fill out a survey. "I didn’t think I was joining anything," says Liz. "They said they were doing a Christian art show and so they emailed me some pictures and it looked wonderful, it looked awesome, so I said I’d meet up with them and chat with them about maybe participating.” [Source: The Feed, SBS Two, 9 April 2014]

“Liz joined Providence church in April 2011 and moved into a house with other members of the group in December 2011. Sarah was also approached by the group and asked to come along to a music night. “I just got such a good feeling from her," says Sarah. "She seemed so friendly and really nice and I didn’t think anything bad could really happen from it. One of the girls suggested that maybe I could do bible studies with them and I remember her saying that it didn’t necessarily have to be really religious."

“Sarah and Liz both say members of the group were encouraged to find and recruit new members through evangelism. "I was at times encouraged to go out and evangelise with other members of the group but I didn’t really feel comfortable doing this," says Sarah. "In a cult, the end justifies the means," says Liz. "We believe that everything we were doing was right. We believe that we were trying to save people’s lives and people’s spirits and that some things that you are doing are justified because it is God’s will. I did believe that I was doing the right thing when I was trying to evangelise girls.”

“It wasn't until Liz was hospitalised due to illness that she was able to get help leaving the group. "When I came out of my time in hospital, I was kind of forced to stay with my mother for a couple of weeks and she managed to fly in an exit counsellor from the U.S. to come and speak to me," says Liz. "It was incredibly painful to sort of realise that what I had been sacrificing everything for the past sort of two years was a lie. The only way I could describe it was rape. Even though it wasn’t physical, it was mental and it was emotional and it was spiritual rape. I felt violated....At times I felt suicidal, at times I felt completely just like road kill I guess, just run over, used by someone else for their own purposes and then just cast aside."

Providence’s Quest for Beautiful Women

The Feed reported: “Providence church in Canberra ran a modelling group on the Australian National University campus to recruit members. Liz says this is because the leader wants to "target young beautiful women". "He wants to have as many beautiful women believing that they are in love with him and believing they would give every part of themselves to him," says Liz. "I don’t really know what he thinks will happen when he comes out of prison but I know he will have a very big following of beautiful women." [Source: The Feed, SBS Two, 9 April 2014]

On the group’s leader, Liz said: "They told us that he was in prison because... he was being persecuted and falsely accused... They said we are in the position of brides towards God and we are also in the position of brides towards Jeong, the leader, because he represents God." According to Liz - members of the group prayed to images of Jeong alongside Jesus. They were also given necklaces as a symbol of dedicating their life to Jeong and remaining unmarried. "We were explained that the three pearls and just the way that they are placed is meant to signify a vagina," says Liz. "Jeong is woman obsessed. And he is sex obsessed. Yeah. And I guess he … wanted his women to be wearing symbolism that fit him."

“Members of the group were also encouraged to write letters to Jeong. Sarah says the letters were often quite personal. "I would often write to him about how difficult things were for me at home, all the tension and conflict that was happening in my family," says Sarah. "My head leader was telling me to write to him like he was my husband or like he was my lover and he would write back in the same way," says Liz. "Some of the letters were quite intimate. So, he would say things like ‘women are much more beautiful when they are naked’ and he said my white skin arouses him." Liz was also asked to visit Jeong in his Korean prison. "We got a 15 minute visit with him," says Liz. "He knew me by name when I stepped into the room, so he had obviously seen my photos and he told me through letters that he would stroke our photos on the wall of his cell."

Providence Activities in South Korea

Nathan Schwartzman wrote in the Asian Correspondent: The group included Min Jong-woon, who joined the cult while in high school and spent the next 20 years believing Jeong Myeong-seok to be the Second Coming of Jesus. Mr. Min was serving as an aid to Mr. Jeong, when he committed an act of terror against “K”, who had been conducted anti-JMS activities. Mr. Min, who at the time was a clergyman in the church, was conflicted about the crimes against former cult members but carried them out after being contacted directly by Jeong Myeong-seok. [Source: Nathan Schwartzman, Asian Correspondent, April 2, 2012]

“Mr. Min said at the press conference that “I believed what Jeong Myeong-seok said, and I committed terrorism against Kim for acting against him, and believed it to be the road to truth and to heaven.” Over the past nine years Mr. Min lived in hiding and had a change of heart which led him to expose these events. At the press conference he was taken away by police to aid their investigation of a 2003 assault.

Others who were leading figures in the JMS cult over the past 20 years spoke of other crimes committed by the cult. The former members spoke of their regret that they had believed Jeong Myeong-seok to have been the Second Coming and that they could be redeemed through his physical love. Kim Gyeong-cheon, a former vice-chairman in the cult, said that “we were all under the delusion that we were in an historic moment through the Lord, that we were to be his loyal brothers and children. Everybody was led by him, lectured by him, overseen by him, and I regret so deeply that the abyss of death was brought closer.”

“There were also statements from the “evergreen trees” who were sexually assaulted by Mr. Jeong. One former member who was a victim of his sex crimes said that “there were over 1,000 evergreen trees, and even from prison he managed them, including minors.” While in prison Jeong Myeong-seok received photos of the women wearing bikinis, and apparently received letters from them as well. Jo Gyeong-suk, former head of the cult’s Seoul branch, said that “not a few of those women committed suicide. They become severely depressed and receive psychiatric treatment, suffer various illnesses and social phobias as a result of the stress, and are unable to marry.” Kim Jin-ho, former director of the cult and now representative of the group No JMS said that “there are currently at least 10 women being managed as evergreen trees… I will bring these accusations to prosecutors to aid the investigation of him for sex crimes.”

Providence (JMS) Follower in South Korea

David Lee wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Kim Sun-gyo – an alias – was in high school when she first came into contact with members of JMS...JMS members from a cultural centre came to her school and gained the attention of students by offering free dance and guitar lessons. Years later, she discovered the cultural centre was built by JMS, deliberately located near her school to recruit students. “My main concern was to lose weight,” says Kim, now in her mid-30s. “All my friends would spend their time doing fun things, but I spent all my time within the group and with its members. In college, my grades suffered because of this, and I even ran away from home for the first time when my mother found out about my involvement.” [Source: David Lee, South China Morning Post, May 18, 2019]

“Kim recalls being lured into the group at a time when she felt particularly vulnerable. Indeed, high school life can be intensely competitive and pressurised for South Korean teenagers as they vie for coveted university positions.

“I felt like members of the group were my life comrades, and they made me happier than when I was at home,” she says. “Everyone was so kind to me, and we would do almost everything together, whether it was preparing for a theater production or taking a trip to the beach.”

After four years of living a double life that forced her to continuously lie to her parents and friends about her daily activities, she eventually came upon the website that JMS members had told her to never visit. It was a site full of testimonies from past JMS members exposing the group’s web of secrets and lies. “Our pastor Jung Myung-suk was hiding in Hong Kong and my friends in the group would send him pictures of themselves in bikinis,” she says. “Just as I was beginning to think something was fishy, Jung was captured by Chinese officials and sent back to South Korea.”

Providence Activities in Japan

Providence became active in Japan, where it is known as Setsuri, around 1987. There were reportedly more than 2,000 followers of the cult in Japan in the late 2000s. Among them were women who sexually assaulted and recruited by a South Korean woman close aide Jung, the founder and is suspected of sending the abused women to his hideouts in a way not unlike Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. [Source: Kyodo, January 20, 2007]

Kyodo reported: “The woman first came to Japan in 1988 and studied at Chiba University for several years beginning in 1990, allegedly recruiting students at the school for the cult, police said. She has frequently traveled between Japan and South Korea since the 1990s but has not entered Japan since she departed for South Korea” in July 2006 “— and there is unconfirmed information that she may be hiding in Taiwan, the sources said. The police probe into the cult has been hampered because its senior members have left Japan. The whereabouts of Jung, who used to frequently visit Japan until a few years ago, is unknown, although an earlier report indicated he was hiding in China.

“Police believe one of the facilities searched had been used as a base for Jung when he visited Japan. Investigators suspect female Japanese followers were sent to a room in the facility and sexually abused by the founder. The 73-year-old former president is alleged to have conspired with a 55-year-old company president in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, in having false documents filed with authorities in March 2000 to make it look like the woman would engage in planning work at his company, when in fact she was serving as a missionary for the cult, investigators said, without identifying the two presidents or their firms. Lawyers working against the cult filed criminal complaints with authorities last August against the South Korean woman for allegedly violating immigration laws and against the two company executives for allegedly abetting her crime.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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