In 2011 my family and I took a short stroll to a one-day festival being held at the Korean National War Memorial in Seoul. On our arrival I immediately sensed impending weirdness. This happened a lot in Korea for some reason.
Steeling myself, I put my cigarette out, head down and joined the festivities via a 100-meter-long honour guard of psychotically enthusiastic young Koreans. They cheered and applauded our entrance as if we were Oprah and had just given them each a new car. There was also a noticeable security presence.
‘This is some kind of cult!’, I told my wife. ‘Normal people aren’t this enthusiastic… it’s not natural.’
My good wife gently allayed my concerns by informing me that I was an idiot, and so we strolled around the forecourt where people happily took turns being spanked gently on the arse with large wooden paddles.
Pretty young people dressed in random outfits made hand gestures I naively assumed were associated with shooting guns, and smiled more than people generally do. As visitors we were enthusiastically encouraged to make this gesture also, which actually meant ‘peace’ and apparently wasn’t weird or confusing at all.
‘Seriously, this is a fucking cult’.
Aggressively friendly young adults from Korea and abroad took turns approaching us to offer any and every form of assistance we might need before giving us plastic bracelets with ‘MANNAM’ written on them. They excitedly asked if we would like to join MANNAM, their international volunteer organisation that was really, super-duper into peace. People with professional video equipment gave us more attention than perhaps necessary, not least (I assumed) because perched on my shoulders was a cute miniature white person who was, like her father, more wide-eyed than usual. We were reminded that it would also be really great if we could flash the MANNAM ‘peace’ gesture.
Volunteers gushed that the evening would bring even further excitement, which I thought might be a potential health concern among their already pathologically joyous ranks, and after about an hour with MANNAM we departed the same way we’d entered. The welcome committee was still there to ferociously applaud us back out to the street with an energy equally astonishing and scary (there’s a more detailed account of this particular event here).
As it turns out, the ‘Mannam Volunteer Organisation’ (whose members never seem to explain what they actually do) is a front for the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (catchy name). The Shincheonji Church is also widely known as the ‘SCJ Cult’, whose followers believe (among other things) that their leader, Lee Man-hee (whose middle name happens to be the ‘Man’ in Mannam) is immortal as well as rich.
For reasons I’ve never quite understood, South Korea is a heavy-hitter in the world of weird religious cults. The far-reaching Shincheonji, with its many peace-liking subsidiary organisations is just one of many.
To name just a few… there’s Providence (known by many names in many countries), founded as a splinter group of the Unification Church in 1978 by Jung Myung Seok (also known by many names, including ‘Heaven’s Rapist‘). Followers of Jung actively recruited attractive young women who were informed that they were, unfortunately, sinners. Luckily Jung could cure them of their evil ways by putting his penis in them. He’s currently serving a ten-year sentence for being a complete bastard.
The World Mission Society Church of God is also a good one. Founded in Busan, South Korea in 1964 by Ahn Sahng-hong, the church’s global following (claimed to be 1.8 million strong) believe that Anh (also known as Christ Anhsahnghong) was indeed the second coming of Jesus Christ (Anh died in 1985).
Members of the WMSCOG explain to non-believers that Anh was logically the second coming of Christ, as proven by the assertion that a 33-year-old Jewish guy who rode donkeys and hung around with prostitutes was also a rather unlikely candidate for messiah.
Then of course there is the Unification Church, founded in 1954 as the ‘Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity’ by Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012). Perhaps most famous for the mass weddings, where the Rev. Moon would personally pair up strangers and marry them in their thousands, the church members (known by many outsiders as ‘Moonies’) are said to be spread over 150 countries.
Anyway, where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, that’s right. Germany.
Last summer while traveling I happened into Frankfurt, and the annual Kaiserstraße (King Street) festival. A cover band performed the latest hits by Robert Palmer and Fleetwood Mac. People happily sampled random offerings of multicultural fare. There was a British stand (fish and chips), and a Brazilian stall selling cocktails. The Sri Lankan stand seemed not to be selling anything at all. Then there was the South Korean stand, with its small but delicious menu of street-cuisine. I immediately felt both hungry and nostalgic… so I told them I’d be right back, and headed straight for the pub. Cheery, large-bosomed women with the arms and shoulders of Olympic hammer-throwers distributed endless trays of enormous glasses of excellent beer.
After a few liters I wandered back to the South Korean stand and ordered some 의정부 부대찌개 and 카스 (army stew and awful Korean beer). They laughed merrily and sold me some 파전 (superb savoury pancakes with spring onion).
Aside from Korean food, what the Koreans had that the other stalls didn’t was a young German guy with a clipboard waiting to ask me if I liked peace. I said that I did. He then asked me to complete a short questionnaire with some other, equally redundant questions (mostly about peace and religion) while explaining that the Korean organisation he was a member of, whilst only 18 months old already had an impressive global membership of 250,000. He directed my attention to a small TV in the corner of the tent which for some reason displayed various Chinese phrases (Hanzi script looks more exotic and spiritual to Europeans than the Koreans’ Hangeul perhaps). The video also depicted large, multicultural crowds of very happy people, and random imagery suggesting that peace is good.
I supplied an email address in the space provided, which I assume meant I was now a member of the club, and awaited the barrage of religious propaganda… but nothing came. As far as I can gather, I am now officially a member of the International Peace Youth Group, which is the Mannam Volunteer Organisation, which is the infamous Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. For whatever reason though, I haven’t heard a single thing from any of these groups or their shadowy subsidiaries in the months since then. I can only assume that my name (the name I gave them, at least) has been added to a database for purely promotional purposes, so that fresh-faced young representatives of these groups can excitedly tell others around the world that their weird little-known Korean charity organisation has x-million members in x-countries.
While my personal experience with South Korean cult culture was benign, others tell stories of less than harmless interactions with these and other organisations. If you’d like to learn more, Australian expatriate and K-cult expert Peter Daley has researched and written extensively on this subject.