The international reaction to the Shincheonji Church’s involvement in the spread of the coronavirus in South Korea has been a mixture of shock and intrigue. However, for anyone familiar with the country’s religious and social history, the existence of such a group will come as no surprise. Their bizarre beliefs, zealous following, and clandestine methods of operating, as detailed by former followers, are not unique in a nation teeming with some of the weirdest offshoots of Christianity that you’re ever likely to encounter.
The most famous example is probably the Unification Church, founded by self-declared messiah Sun Myung Moon, which retains an estimated following of over a million worldwide. Moon, deceased since 2012, had a fondness for arranged marriages among his flock, know as “Moonies,” and frequently packed stadiums to wed thousands of couples en masse.
Grace Road Church founder Shin Ok-ju didn’t have the quite the same status as a deity, yet claimed to foresee a great famine and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Her idea of sitting it out until Judgment Day in a paradise land apparently referenced in the Bible was to move to Fiji and have all members join her there. A return to South Korea in 2018, however, saw her arrested for assault, imprisonment, and child abuse among other crimes allegedly committed at the island hideaway, for which she was imprisoned for six years last year.
The tentacles of these movements have reached the highest echelons of power in South Korea. Choi Tae-min led a cult combining elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Korean Shamanism (more on that in a moment) and had a mentor-like relationship with previous President Park Geun-hye. Park became equally close to Choi’s daughter Soon-sil, who was accused of being the power behind the throne when Park was impeached in 2016. Soon-sil is now behind bars along with the former president.
So what is behind South Korea’s cult issues?
Christianity in South Korea is to a large extent a reflection of the uncompromising puritanical Protestantism common throughout the United States. Presbyterian missionaries from the U.S. had a huge influence in shaping religion on the peninsula, and the unorthodox interpretations of doctrine that subsequently emerged in the following decades somewhat mirror the ultra-conservative Christian sects spread across America’s bible belt and beyond.
The influence of shamanism cannot be underestimated, either. It’s not unheard of for churchgoers even at mainstream congregations to go into trances and begin speaking in tongues. This intensity and fervor among Christians can be directly linked to the belief system that predates the coming of missionaries and has withstood South Korea’s modernization. Many citizens still identify with certain shamanistic beliefs, capitalized on by over 50,000 shamans who continue to operate for often lucrative gains, including through the exorcism of new buildings authorized by educated businesspeople high up the corporate ladder. This feeds into Christianity and plays a part in creating hybrid-type religions characterized by fierce dedication and frenzied rituals.
Let’s be clear that these cults exist very much on the fringes of society. However, they do offer a sanctuary for those striving for a sense of identity and belonging. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in South Korea. A conformist mentality arguably still reigns over individualism, as do Confucian values like filial piety. Many will simply follow their family into cults. Those who are indoctrinated are likely to quickly find harmony in their new surroundings, and would find it difficult to extricate themselves from their newfound family or question the logic of senior members, no matter how far-fetched their teachings may seem to us.
How recent events will affect the long-term status of such groups the length and breadth of South Korea remains to be seen. There has been widespread anger at the Shincheonji Church, who have recently issued an apology for their part in the spread of the virus but are still facing the threat of possible criminal charges. Cults like themselves that have long been tolerated as simply a Korean take on faith will hopefully now face the type of scrutiny that fully exposes the lies, manipulation, and corruption that are the foundation for nearly all such organizations, going some way to break the spell that has entranced their legions of devotees.
Robert Davies is a freelancer writer who has lived in the U.K., South Korea, and China.