A big thank you to Jee-hyo Jeong and the crew of KCrush Magazine
for interviewing me for their anniversary issue. At this stage, there are no plans to publish the interview online, but they were kind enough to allow me to share it here on my site. The version that appears in print was slightly edited to save space. Here is the full version which I'm gradually revising and adding links and photos:
An Interview With a Cult Specialist
Many of us would remember the tragic ferry incident that occurred in Korea in April 16, 2014. The Sewol ferry was carrying 476 people when it capsized and sank. Most passengers were secondary school students on their way to Jeju Island for a school excursion.
As a result, 304 people died in the disaster. This incident was all over the news and the media for weeks, putting the whole nation into a deep depression. The Japanese-made ferry was built in 1994 and was purchased over a decade ago. Experts claim the Sewol should have been discarded long ago. It was not in the state to be operating, especially with all the overload of the cargo the regulators loaded on the ferry without registration. At first, people put the blame on the captain of the ferry, who was one of the first to be rescued. But the fact that the ferry was owned by a notorious cult group called the Salvation Sect was soon revealed. One of the doctrines of the group to note is that they believe that only their cult members can receive salvation; meaning that they don’t regard anyone else’s well-being who are not affiliated with them.
I was able to interview Prof. Peter Daley who is teaching at a university in Korea. He is known as a cult specialist who has dedicated much of his time to uncover the shadiness of cult groups in Korea for many years, risking his safety.
From what I’ve seen and heard, many foreigners come to Korea and fall victims of these cults since they actively recruit people saying the need people to teach English as volunteers and so forth.
Even though the subject to be discussed here would not necessarily be what we normally cover for our Kcrush interviews, I strongly believe Prof. Daley’s interview can play a very important role to raise awareness and give insight son how cults operate. A massive ‘thank you’ goes out to Prof. Daley for a great and informative interview. Could you tell us about yourself, your occupation and the research that you have been doing for years? How did it all start?
I come from Australia, but I've spent a great deal of my working life beyond its borders. After graduating from university, I spent two years in the UK on a working holiday visa. After returning to Australia to study education, I taught English in Japan for two years. I then moved to South Korea, and I'm still here 12 years later. I've spent the last ten years working at two Korean universities, the first was in Daegu, and the second and current place of work is in Seoul. For most of that time, I have been teaching English with the exception of a two-year stint working in the international office of my first university. I've long been interested in cults and totalitarian regimes. After encountering a little-known cult (JMS) in Korea, I decided to begin researching its teachings, its recruitment and retention tactics, its criminal history, and its branches outside Korea. An interest in that cult naturally led to others, and now my site is the largest resource on several lesser-known destructive cults. Beyond cults, my interests revolve around music (I play guitar and piano), reading, and exercising including the occasional slow half marathon. I also teach English on a voluntary basis to North Korean defectors via the Teach North Korean Refugees NGO.
Two of my students, Sharon and Ken, were recently featured in this Daily Mail article.How and when did you start researching about cult religions and groups in Korea?
My interest in cults began soon after I moved to Korea in December, 2002. The Korean town I first lived in, Geumsan, is the closest town to a secluded, rural mountain retreat called Wolmyeong Dong (WMD – a rather unfortunate acronym).
WMD is the headquarters of the JMS cult (also known as Providence Church and Christian Gospel Mission), which is led by convicted serial rapist Jeong Myeong-seok who was at that time a fugitive wanted by Interpol and Korean authorities.
A rock statue at WMD points to the cult's no longer secret sexual doctrines
My fellow teacher and roommate joined because she was looking to join a Christian church, which was how the cult presented itself to her via our school's receptionist. We later discovered that the leader, who had praised Hitler in several speeches, had fled Korea in 1999 the day after rape allegations aired on national TV. When my roommate subsequently left the group, she was followed, harassed, and threatened by members of the cult. I was furious at how they had treated her and also alarmed at the lack of English information online about them at the time. In the summer of 2003, the cult hosted a festival at the University of British Columbia. Obviously, the cult was benefiting from that lack on English information. I felt that needed correcting, so I began putting information online. Twelve years later, my interest hasn't waned in the least.
Jeong Myeong-seok was arrested in China in 2007 and is currently serving a ten-year sentence for rapes committed while he was a fugitive. His cult still exists and is actively recruiting students on university campuses across Asia, the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Most recruitment attempts center around front groups like modelling, sports, or dance groups that are designed to lure in young attractive women. In the United States, the JMS cult has been known to operate on numerous campuses including: Harvard University, Hunter College, Colombia University, California State University, United States Military Academy (West Point), University of Washington, UCLA, UC Berkley, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, University of Hawaii, Houston University, Rice University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Illinois.Can you briefly explain the traits and characteristics of the cult groups you research?
I mainly focus on groups at the extreme end of the cultic spectrum. Such groups are often described as destructive cults. I also prefer to focus on lesser-known groups as they are more deserving of exposure. Most of the cults I explore have criminal histories. Those that don't have criminal histories have their critics and documented media reports that typically recount tales of deceit, abuse, and exploitation.
Destructive cults exist to enrich the leadership at the expense of members. There is typically a leader who claims some kind of special knowledge, the sole path to enlightenment or happiness, or a God-given role as God's sole representative and messiah. Love bombing is often used by cults to make new recruits feel special and important. Who doesn’t like feeling special and important? Conditional friendships are formed contingent on further involvement and obedience.
Cults typically use deceptive recruiting tactics like transitory front groups and the withholding of information until allegiance has been cemented. Thus, it is almost impossible for a typical recruit to make an informed decision to join the group. They literally do not know what they are getting themselves into, and that is by design.
There is always some form of exploitation from the top and adulation from the bottom directed towards the leadership as all cults are essentially cults of personality. There is a concerted effort to gradually indoctrinate new recruits into the cult’s inner secret teachings and mores. Those inner teachings may be in stark contrast to how the cult presented itself to the new recruit and to the outside world. The JMS cult, with its inside doctrines praising the Holocaust for example, used to recruit through a front group called The Global Association of Culture and Peace.
Cults exhibit a very simplistic and potentially dangerous worldview characterized by an "us" versus "them" mindset. Essentially, anything to do with the group is "good," while anything outside or opposed to the group is simply "wrong" or "evil.” There are no shades of grey, and there are never legitimate reasons to leave the group. We see similar worldviews in modern terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. In his recent book Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery: Leaders, Followers, and Mind Manipulation, Masoud Banisadr, in describing the workings of the Islamic-based Iranian terrorist group he belonged to, described most of the tactics I’ve seen Korean Bible-based cults use. Approximately how many Korean cults are there in Korea?
In his book The Koreans, journalist Michael Breen puts the number of Korean messiahs at around 70. That doesn't include non-Bible-based religious groups, nor does it include cults that form around secular activities like the arts, yoga, martial arts, traditional healing methods, and other traditions. There are also megachurches which may not exactly meet the definition of a destructive cult, but they are cause for concern as several have been involved in corruption scandals and other controversies which indicate leader bank balances are of greater concern than the well-being of members. I believe there could well be in excess of 200 Korean cults, and that doesn’t include non-Korean cults that operate in Korea. It has been estimated that there are some 2,000 cults in America. Cults are, unfortunately, a problem the world over. Do you see a defined differences between Korean cults compared to ones in America?
While each cult, Korean or otherwise, has its own idiosyncrasies, its unique language, and its own goals, the similarities are the key details and the differences are more peripheral in nature. The similarities concern the psychological tools employed by the cult to recruit, retain, and exploit members. The differences can be things like their target demographic and their particular motives. JMS, for example, primarily targets young women while other groups may be more concerned with money. A recent example of how similar cults are is visible in Scientology's response to the HBO documentary Going Clear. Scientology's response has centered exclusively on denigrating its critics. North Korea, the JMS cult, and Dahn Yoga (another Korean cult that has been criticized in the media) all respond to criticisms in the same way. They attack the messenger in order to avoid acknowledging and discussing legitimate criticisms and concerns. They do so to maintain the illusion the group is essentially perfect. Cults all over the world use the same tactics and manipulation tricks because human psychology is universal. What works in Asia, will invariably work in America, Australia, India, and any other region or country you can name. To understand one cult is really to understand them all. Certain cultural aspects can, however, hinder or aid a cult. In Korea, for example, automatic deference towards elders and the less individualist nature of society are two cultural factors that Korean cults typically take advantage of. Why do you think people get hood-winked by cult leaders? Would you say it can be psychologically explained?
The term "undue" influence is a fully accepted legal doctrine. While it more often applies to pressure to enter into a legal agreement, we really see the same kind of pressures exerted on those targeted for recruitment into a cult. I often think of cults as abusive relationships on grand scales or as miniature totalitarian regimes. When a cult with some 20 years’ experience indoctrinating people brings that experience and its resources to bear on an unsuspecting 19-year-old with little or no awareness of how cults operate, the result is sadly predictable.
In his seminal book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China
, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton identified eight criteria needed for successful thought reform or indoctrination. His 1981 paper “Cult Formation” explored the same phenomenon through the lens of modern cults that had begun appearing on US soil throughout the 60s and 70s. Psychologist Margaret Singer noticed similarities between what Lifton observed and her own observations of young Americans who had joined groups like Scientology and Rev. Moon’s Unification Church (the Moonies). Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
identified the social pressures that advertisers, swindlers, and cults employ to gain compliance or to sell an unneeded item. Cults try to cast doubt on the findings of those psychologists, but I can see no other explanation for the many intelligent people I have met who at one point in their lives came to believe with 100% certainty that a certain serial-raping, Hitler-praising elder Korean gentleman is the personification of Jesus Christ. In simpler terms, I often think of indoctrination as the result of a series of very well-told lies by unethical organizations with enormous resources, experience, and manpower at their disposal.