Deeply influenced by shamanism, an ethnic religion that believes in the forces of Nature, Koreans have been known to have a unique, mystical interpretation of Christianity – and to be quick to embrace what Koreans call ‘new religions’ – basically cults that prey on the vulnerability of people for financial gain. It is thought that hundreds cults exist in South Korea.
Why do they do so well? Some of them were an answer to Korea’s troubled society in the aftermath of its annexation to Japan in 1905, others thrive because they are Korean-centric, either by borrowing heavily in Korea’s myths or by making Koreans the Chosen people.
It’s a bit of an ego boost, when you think of it, when it is your country that gives the world the Messiah, when the scriptures are written in Korean, and when those who are to be saved are, well, Koreans.
Here are some of the most successful, eccentric, and sinister ones.
1. The Religion of The People: Chondogyo (‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’)
‘Chongyo’ followers, as the Church’s name is commonly abbreviated, gather at the Church’s headquarters in Seoul’s Jongno district, to celebrate the 15th cultural festival; Image Source: Chongdogyo
This one is actually harmless and has a commendable message. Chondogyo is a nationalist religious movement that was officially established by Choe Je-u in 1860. Chondoism worships the heavens as a foundation of goodness and justice, and the heavens are referred to as “Master Heaven.” (yep, that’s some Confucianism you’re sensing right there).
The movement originated from a peasant rebellion in 1812 and the Donghak movement, a Confucian movement against the dissemination of Westerner ideas in the 19th century.
Chondoist theology borrows elements from Korean shamanism, Buddhism, and Christianity, but rejects the afterlife, seen as a stratagem used by those in power to maintain the little people into serfdom, and believes in reforming the system to bring justice and equality to all.
Followers of Chondoism believe that God exists in each of us and that we should all strive to make earth a paradise. It attempts to transform the believers into intelligent moral beings with a high social consciousness.
2. The Yogi Movement: Dahn World
Image Source: Bodynbrain
Can you abuse your exercise routine to the point where it compromises your thinking ability, self-esteem, and finances? If your trainer is a cult guru, you probably can.
This emerging Korean Daoist group made the news in 2010 and earned the unflattering epithet “The Yoga Cult” from CNN in the process for recruiting American college students with unorthodox exercise techniques – and charging an inordinate amount of money for the lessons.
Convinced that their Grand Master’s bootcamp-style yoga classes could save their souls and the world, Dahn World followers would get into serious debt for the privilege of learning the path towards enlightenment à la Ilchi Lee, the Cult’s ‘spiritual father’.
According to the Rolling Stone, Dahn Yoga’s seminars mainly attracted women in their twnties who would go to extreme to learn invaluable life-lessons, including run around a room until they’d collapse from exhaustion, throw dirt at their faces or shout self-deprecating cheers such as ‘I’m stupid’ – to learn humility, and all for as little as $8,500 for a 10-day seminar.
In Korea, Dahn World is a known cult using wellness as a marketing strategy and recruitment tool. And with more than 120 fitness centers in the world and an additional 1,000 franchises, the 30-year old movement is the perfect cash cow – and a destructive mind-control organization.
An author and the creator of multiple mind-body training method, Ilchi Lee promotes the “health, happiness, and peace” through his training. And it’s apparently harmless: an hour exercise a day, a philosophy of change to instill ‘good habits’ in beginners, the practice of mindful eating as well as respiration and meditation-based exercises to clear your mind.
But then it gets freakish.
Basing his philosophy on Eastern philosophies and Korea’s foundation myth, Lee argues that man can achieve enlightenment by restoring his connection with mother Earth. He also stresses the importance of removing one’s negative ‘brain wave vibrations’ to bring happiness to your mind. And he openly declares that a side effect of his excessive yoga sessions is to make you ‘hotheaded and sluggish’
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3. The Money Making Machine: Unification Church
Mass weddings were Reverend Moon’s contribution to making the world a better place; Image Source: Orange-papers
This is perhaps the best-known cult from South Korea, as Reverend Moon’s Moonies have established their international headquarters on US soil and spreading their faith (read, recruiting) from the Land of the Free since 1959.
Few, however, are aware of the incredible wealth of the Unification Church: at one point, Moon’s Tong Il Group controlled over $3bn and was South Korea’s 28th largest conglomerate via its main entity, Tong Il group (litt. ‘unification group’). It was affiliated with reputable companies and organizations, including The Washington Times Corporation, World Media Association, or Segye Ilbo, one of Korea’s top newspapers.
Today, although its base of followers has been decimated over the years, the group maintains a larger network and is more influential in the rest of the world than in Korea. It operates hundreds of companies in Japan and the U.S. alone, including hotels, aircraft companies, and a maritime food product company.
The Church runs like a business and has been known for using nasty tactics, including brainwashing and coercion worldwide. In the late 1980s, Moonies even concocted a scheme to boost the sales of Moon’s ginger in Japan by $800M– instilling fear in customers and telling them that a diet of Moon’s ginger would help appease the spirits.
But the Unification Church has more humble beginnings. Founded in the 1940s and officially established in 1954, the Unification Church has a very unique interpretation of Christianity. Moon’s followers believe that Jesus Christ appeared before their founder in 1936 on Easter Morning, when the young Sun Myung Moon was only 16 years old.
In his visions, Jesus would exhort to Moon to pursue the mission he was unable to complete – unify the world with love. He would later receive communications with Moses, Buddah, and ‘others’. You get the picture.
Known as the “Divine Principle”, the doctrine stresses the duality in nature and the harmonious union of masculine and feminine – yes, he probably borrowed that from the Book of Tao.
The aim of the Unification Church is to create “true families,” which is often achieved through mass weddings, a means of fulfilling God’s true purpose – to experience joy and love, and is the only way to bring forth the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, Moon, too, did his part to make the world a better place, choosing the mates of the couples he married, dodging the IRS, and brainwashing children.
With Reverend Moon’s passing in 2012, his son, Moon Kook Jin, has taken over as Chairman of the Unification Church’s controlling equity, Tong Il Group.
4. The Suicidal One: Salvation Sect (Guwonpa)
Billionaire Yoo Byung-eun died in a highly mediatized ferry accident in 2014 along with 300 members of his Salvation Sect; Image Source: Aljazeera
Founded in 1962 by Yoo Byung-eun, and his father-in-law, Pastor Kwon Shin-chan, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea (the Salvation Sect’s official name) is another shadowy fringe church that was the focus of the largest manhunt in South Korean history for its involvement in the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry and the death of its 300 passengers in 2014 – that is, until the authorities confirmed Yoo’s passing in the accident.
In France, he was a known museum donator and a prolific artist (his pseudonym was ‘ahea‘). But Yoo, a billionaire and a photographer, had a somewhat sordid past. He was linked to another similar the Odaeyang mass suicide in 1987 (see below) for which he was convicted of fraud and served a 4-year prison term. But that’s unlikely to have weigh on Yoo’s conscience at all.
According to his Church’s doctrine, 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.
5. The Short Lived Experience: Odaeyang
A sight of Park Soon-ja’s students on a nighttime roll call. It is said that she managed her followers with a firmer grip than the Army; Image Source: Daum
This is another apocalyptic religion that resulted in unnecessary human sacrifices.
Odaeyang was founded in the 1980s by Park Soon-ja, a woman called by her victims ‘Benevolent Mother’ and who was once a follower of Yoo Byung-eun’s Salvation Sect.
Park’s splinter group claimed to be Christian and preached that the world, mired in decadence, was coming to an end.
Park, a socialite who was involved in numerous charitable organizations in the city of Daejon, where her husband was a local government official, demanded extreme spiritual discipline and blind obedience.
After Police began investigating accusations that she swindled $8.7 million from about 220 people, many of them apparently involved in the cult, she eventually decided to end her life and that of 32 other of her followers in a collective suicide.
Many of the dead were clothed in underwear or wearing pajamas, and appeared to have been bonded, strangled or poisoned – and not to have resisted.