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How I ended up in a Korean religious cult


This is quite an unusual story, as it is my account of how I ended up in a religious cult in South Korea and how I walked out of it. It has been a most interesting experience, but not without any fear. My story provides an insight in how religious cults can function and serves as a warning for others, who might find themselves in a similar situation one day.

Via a colleague I received an invitation to attend a ‘world peace summit’, in Seoul, South Korea, in my capacity as president of a youth organization in the Netherlands. The three-day event aimed to bring together representatives from governments, religions and youth organizations, in order to ‘discuss and create an interfaith constitution for peace’. The members of the youth organizations would also meet separately, to discuss peaceful actions in their communities. The organization, officially called ‘Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL)’, paid 80% of the plane ticket. The official name sounded a bit sketchy to me, looking at the religious connotation, but there would be discussions and it was staged as a secular event. By googling the name of the organization I could not find much, as it was going to be organized for the first time. Eventually, the prospect of discussing actions for more peaceful societies, meeting representatives from youth organizations from all over the world and seeing the country convinced me to join the peace summit.

Upon arrival at the airport I was welcomed by a big group of members of the organization, which was quite a surprise. All day attendants of the Summit were arriving, and they got a warm welcome. I was asked to go on a picture with ‘my’ arrival team, together with two persons in big suits, like mascots. Well, the picture explains it best. After that we went straight to a conference location, where a preparation meeting was held, with the representatives of youth organizations. There was a lot of media and a main speech was given by a man of senior age, Mr. Man Hee Lee, the ‘honorary chairman’ of the organization. He was introduced as a father figure to the youth and as a peace maker, as he travelled around the world to spread the message of peace. Allegedly he had all the answers to achieve world peace, but what that exactly meant did not become clear yet, except that we should all unite to make peace. I discussed with some colleagues that it did not feel very promising, but probably we could advocate for different strategies and bottom-up approaches in the next meetings.

We stayed in a hotel outside the city and the next day we drove with busses to a parking lot, next to a big stadium, which turned out to be the main stadium built for the 1988 Summer Olympics. We were asked to wear traditional clothes from our countries. As I am from the Netherlands and we do not really have a traditional outfit, I was wearing an orange shirt of our national team. Others were wearing the most colorful clothes, making quite an impression, also taking in mind we were with around 300 people. Still we were not sure what exactly we were going to do.

The stadium turned out to be fully packed (capacity 70.000), and we walked in via the athletes entrance, with cheering crowds and fireworks. Amazed at what we were experiencing, we took pictures and videos (please find a great one below), fearing that nobody would believe us if we did not. We were directed to a prominent place in the stadium, where we heard a couple of speeches and we witnessed some impressive show elements, with music, dances and fireworks. Most special was the ‘human LCD’ card performance, in which hundreds of Korean youngsters depicted different ‘moving’ scenes. An American rabbi held an interesting speech, in which he continuously repeated “Let peace reign”, for example after some statement about Israel, but without any realism. Every time the crowd was cheering, but we noticed that was strange, since the crowd was mostly very young and many of them could probably not understand English (also older people usually had trouble with English). In front of every section however, there was a person who ‘directed’ that part of the audience: if he or she started screaming, everybody would follow. The main speech was again from Mr. Man Hee Lee, where I found out the real intentions behind the gathering. Previously Man Hee Lee spoke about “uniting all youngsters to achieve peace”, but now it became clear how exactly: by uniting under his religion.

He explained that he was sent as a messenger from heaven to deliver this message and that uniting under the one true God was the only way to solve conflicts. Diversity was the problem. At that moment I was sure that this ‘peace summit’ would not have a meaningful contribution. Back in the hotel I started googling to see if I could find more about Man Hee Lee and the movement. Some blogs (links below) explained that HWPL was actually a disguised body of the ‘Sincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony’, which Man Hee Lee founded in 1984. It is best described as a Christian cult, with dubious teachings on the bible. The organization infiltrates schools and other churches, to recruit new members and to indoctrinate them. For foreigners they organize free Korean lessons and leisure events. While these foreigners don’t know exactly who organizes these free activities, on photo and video material it seems that they support the Church. For similar reasons we were photographed so much in the stadium: we are excellent propaganda material for the South Korean people, showing them that Man Hee Lee has supporters from all over the world.

About those pictures it is interesting that they asked us to make a peace symbol with our hands, not the regular ‘V’, but with forefinger and thumb up, a bit like a gun. Most people did it without asking, but it turned out to be the symbol of the cult, again making beautiful PR material. While me and some other colleagues made plans to leave the conference, or at least to change our sleeping location to a hostel in the center, somebody from the organization came to talk to us. At that moment around half of the youth organization representatives had gathered in the only room where internet was available. Our points of critique were expressed, focusing on the lack of discussions, the exclusive approach and the religious character of the meeting. The manager listened to it and promised more discussions for the next day. But she also said that according to her we should be a bit happier maybe, as we were witnessing world history. And: if you are not for this peace summit, are you against peace? As we already lost our faith anyway, we booked the hostel.

We were afraid to say the real reason that we left the hotel, so we just showed up in the morning with our suitcases. After the bus ride to the new conference location, we wanted to go first to the hostel, but our Protocol Officers explained it would be best to leave the suitcases in the baggage compartment in the bus, and pick it up at the end of the day, leaving us little choice. You need to know that every three or four participants in the summit were accompanied by two ‘Protocol Officers’. They check if you feel good and if you can find the way. It seemed very nice at first, but in fact they were all the time checking where you are, in other words trying to control you and the situation. After some time me and my rebellious colleagues went back to the bus anyway, to ask the driver if he could open the luggage compartment. He did it and we went to our booked hostel with a taxi. After dropping our suitcases in the hostel we got a bit lost in the Seoul subway, according to Wikipedia the longest metro system, but we made it back to the location.

My Protocol Officers were happy that I was back, but they seemed frightened and even a bit desperate. Another colleague told me that he saw that my Protocol Officer had a strong conversation about my absence with her manager and afterwards she was in tears. In general the Protocol Officers and the other volunteers seemed constantly very tired, showing a big lack of sleep. During the last two evenings they often had briefings, while they did not even sleep at the hostel. The morning program consisted of a ceremony to sign a document, calling for the cessation of all wars. Effectively, smartly formulated, the document meant a submission of allegiance to the Sincheonji Church. There was quite some pressure to sign from the Protocol Officers, but I refused, explaining that I would have to discuss it with my organization first. After the lunch we were waiting for the planned discussions, but when again endless and pointless speeches were announced, me and some other colleagues left the summit for good. As I was still afraid to inform my Protocol Officers about the real reason (they could still cancel my plane ticket), we left pretty suddenly. I was sitting next to a Protocol Officer and I saw that she lost all the color in her face when I stood up to leave. She started calling quickly, as there is always a second Officer near the door, to stop people. But that person must have been gone for a moment, as we quickly walked towards the main exit.

Outside, across the street, there were around 20 protesters, having big flags, warning people about the destructive aspects of the cult. Some of them were screaming at the top of their lungs towards the building, hoping that somebody would get their message. I spoke to a woman who was involved and she explained that her daughter was brainwashed by the organization and that she had not seen her for some years now. We left as quickly as possible, feeling sad about the whole adventure. I was still nervous if my return ticket was not going to be cancelled. We spent our last 1,5 day with sightseeing, but I could not enjoy so much anymore. From other Koreans we learned that there are more religious cults in South Korea, but they are exceptions and we should not judge the whole of South Korea with our experience.

From some critical blogs I learned that the Sincheonji Church organizes these big events every couple of years or so, but every time under a new name. Every time the name of the event gets a lot of negative references afterwards, so they want to start with a clean sheet. Now, looking back, it was an enlightening experience to see how religious cults function from the inside. It reinforced my fear of collectivism and top-down approaches. Also it showed me once more how religion can be a destructive force. Of course I should have looked better into the real organization behind the peace summit and who sponsors it. Hopefully the next time the Sincheonji Church organizes such an event, under a new name probably, people will think twice. Ironically, in the end we indeed united as one, but then against Mr. Man Hee Lee and his deceiving practices.

Photo album (23 photos):

Some links for further reading:

Video made by a colleague:

Video from the organization:


Martijn Bergsma

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