Here are excerpts from an interesting article.
Is Maum's creator one of many Korean self made saviors?
South Korea’s leading cult expert is Tark Ji-il, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University. When I reached out to him, he said that as a person of Korean descent, this would be a “very meaningful study” for me. It has been for him as well, though for a different, darker reason: Tark’s father, who studied Korean cults for almost 30 years, was murdered by a cult member in 1994.
According to Tark, it’s nearly impossible to determine exactly how many Korean cults exist today, but he estimates the number is likely over 100. A solid statistic is difficult to wrangle, because many cults in South Korea consider themselves Christian entities. According to the 2015 census, 27.6% of South Koreans identify as Christian and 15.5% as Buddhist, while 56.9% of the population align themselves with no religious affiliation, with unregistered groups, or with Sindo (an indigenous folk religion also known as Korean shamanism). A 2012 Pew Research Center study offers similar statistics. Where cults may fit into those numbers, if at all, is unknowable.
But their presence is palpable in South Korea; I came across so many rumors and whispers about celebrities and politicians that I began to think you could link almost anyone or anything, within six degrees of separation, to cultish activity. Even one of the country’s most devastating tragedies in decades, the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry in 2014, could be traced back to a cult. Over 300 passengers drowned, sparking (among other indictments) a nationwide manhunt for Yoo Byung-eun, the chairman of the shipping company that operated the vessel. Yoo had also founded the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, known alternatively as the Salvation Sect, deemed a cult by the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in South Korea.
I’d come across the phrase “new religious movement” — rather than “cult” — a number of times in my research, so I asked Tark for clarification. He said a variety of terms are used to describe groups that exist on the fringes of mainstream religion, whose intentions range from meditative and innocuous, like Falun Gong, to manipulative and destructive, like David Koresh’s Branch Davidians — more than 80 of whom died in an inferno during the 1993 compound siege in Waco, Texas. I’d also read that sociologists popularized the term “new religious movement” to veer away from the derogatory associations with the word “cult,” like the tactics of mind control and brainwashing.
Tark prefers using “cult” or the biblical term “heresy” when referring to any group in Korea that has diverged from mainline churches. Those groups, he told me, typically ascribe to four principles:
1. God, or the Second Coming of Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is Korean.
2. The new revelation or doctrine is written in Korean.
3. The chosen people who will be saved are mostly Korean.
4. The new kingdom will be established in Korea.
Most of these heresies originated during South Korea’s three main periods of political unrest and cultural oppression: Japanese imperialist rule (1910–1945), the Korean War (1950–1953), and postwar dictatorship during massive industrialization (1960–1986). Tark believes this is no coincidence. “Military dictatorship [in Korea] needed blind supporters because they didn’t have any democratic basis, and cults needed an umbrella under which they could hide from mainline churches or surrounding society’s criticism,” he said. New Korea-centric religions, which blend facets of Buddhism, Christianity, and shamanism, appealed to Koreans who were desperate for salvation in times of national despair.
A.S. goes one step further than Tark, positing that Korea’s sizable cult presence is a product of a century-long “spiritual inferiority crisis.” Imported faiths dominated Korean history for over 1,500 years. “We never had our own Buddha, our own Confucius,” A.S. told me. “Then somebody comes out and says, I am the savior, I am the Messiah … to have our own deity, of course people would get excited.”
The most enterprising cult leaders in Korea, though, anoint themselves as messiahs by proffering shamanlike, divine clarity. Korean shamanism, which is also known as muism, is a prehistoric belief system native to Korea. Mudangs or baksus, Korean shamans, are mystics and healers, gifted intermediaries between the spirit world and the human plane. Their traditional gut rituals are still performed today, for events like business openings or groundbreaking ceremonies, to help clients establish peace and balance with surrounding energies. In a 1997 article I’d read recounting my uncle’s exorcism case, experts claimed that shamanism “continues to strongly influence Korean thinking … a shaman, like a priest, is believed to possess special powers.”
Meanwhile, beyond the realm of our home in Southern California, accounts of other religious, fanatical Koreans began to emerge.
Tell-all memoirs, international investigations, and even a 60 Minutes feature exposed the inner workings of the Unification Church, a South Korean “new religion” originally founded by leader and “true father” Moon Sun Myung in 1954. Moon’s group had successfully evangelized in the US and as far abroad as Russia and Czechoslovakia, boasting a membership of up to 3 million followers worldwide. Their nickname, the “Moonies,” had become synonymous with bright-eyed and brainwashed worshippers, who agreed to arranged marriages and mass weddings, squandering their life savings, toiling 21 hours a day..