The Shinchonji/Mannam cult tries to recruit me
There are two types of Koreans who will approach you randomly on the street for conversation: people who want to practice English, and religious recruiters.
By far the most common religious group to do this are the Jehova’s Witnesses. Recruitment is, of course, a large part of that movement, and foreigners in Korea seem to be a big target. I once had a Jehova’s Witness stop their car on the highway to talk to me while I was waiting at the bus stop. I’ve come to recognise these types pretty quickly, and usually when they initiate a conversation I will say, “Are you a Jehova’s Witness? I’m familiar with your material. No, I’m not interested.” And that takes care of it.
Korea is a petri-dish for new religious movements, the most famous of which is the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church. I don’t know why. According to this document there are 200 cults in Korea. Today, I met one of them – the Shinchonji cult, which has apparently been actively trying to recruit foreigners via their volunteer front organization, Mannam, for some time.
It began like this: last week I was approached on the street of my new city by a couple of attractive Korean girls. They asked me if I spoke Korean, and I gave my usual spiel about how I spoke just a little. They said they wanted to meet foreigners for their social club. As I said, there are only two types of Koreans who approach foreigners, and neither of these two spoke much English, so I probably should have been wary. But I’m keen to practice my Korean, and the materials they showed me didn’t seem religious. I thought that they were part of some university social club that wanted to meet foreigners to practice English, which is not unusual here. And I’m new in town, and would like to make some Korean friends. And they were really cute. So I gave them my phone number.
Today, the one with whom I spoke the most messaged me on Kakao Talk and asked if I had time to meet for coffee. She wanted to tell me about what her group was doing this Sunday. I was happy to go along. I was quite excited about my coffee date with the cute Korean girl.
So we met up and she took me to a cafe. Things were immediately a little weird. With her was the other cute Korean girl who had been recruiting with her, which was fine, but accompanying them was a grim-looking fifty-something Korean man, who bought us all coffees. We sat down and I had to ask for introductions. All of this was in Korean, and my Korean is not too hot, so I felt at a disadvantage. They told me the man was their… something, but it wasn’t a word in my limited Korean vocabulary.
They immediately produced a pamphlet promoting the World Peace Initiative, and wanted me to come on a bus with them this Sunday to Seoul to attend. They showed me a video on their phone. Both the pamphlet and the video, like the name of the festival, seemed curiously devoid of actual content. It was hard to tell exactly what they wanted me to come to, or why. I tried to ask who they were, what their group was, but I couldn’t follow the answer. They pointed to a logo on the front of the brochure which said “Mannam”.
They had made a tactical error. I was really quite open to the idea of hanging out with them on Sunday, and if we’d begun with some conversation, and the weird older guy hadn’t been there, I might have signed up. But the situation and their abruptness made me uneasy.
So I made some excuse about being busy, and things got awkward. They kept trying to convince me, in Korean I couldn’t really understand, and they seemed sad that I didn’t want to come, and I felt bad. I tried to make conversation with them, and they seemed nice and fun, but they kept coming back to the festival. I tried to tell them that I was interested in making Korean friends, and that I would be happy to do something with them some time in town, but I wasn’t going to go off to Seoul with them to attend the festival.
I was getting frustrated and I tried to make the point that they had come on a bit strong. I said to them that I wanted to make Korean friends, but that I would be more comfortable starting with coffee and conversation, and maybe meeting for some drinks, and then, if we were friends, we could go to Seoul. They said they wanted to make friends with me by inviting me to come to Seoul with them as part of their group. The middle aged-man looked put out and wandered off. He hadn’t really participated in the conversation.
I looked up the word cult on my phone dictionary and showed it to them. The thing is, I still didn’t think that they were a cult. I was just trying to illustrate the point that they had come on way too heavy and made me feel uncomfortable. They seemed genuinely regretful. I thought that they were just Korean volunteers for some oddball organization, and I was being unduly suspicious. I wondered if I should just have said yes, and seen where it all went; certainly there was nothing threatening about the situation. They told me that they were “good people” and not “bad people” – yes, this is the level of my Korean – and told me to look them up on Naver, where I would see that Mannam International and the World Peace Initiative were good organizations.
It was incredibly awkward. I had rejected their offer, eventually insistently, and my Korean isn’t really good enough to hold up a conversation for very long, and certainly not good enough for the kind of social niceties that the situation demanded. I finished my coffee quickly. I asked them if they wanted to go, and they said they were meeting another friend there. They said thank you for coming to meet us, and that if I changed my mind I should call them. I left.
I came home and took their advice, and looked up their loopy organization, which quickly took me to this article in the Korean Herald, and this thread on waygook.org, which is remarkably informative (for a thread on waygook.org).
I was surprised, but not very, to discover that my perceptions of oddness and cultishness were correct, and I wasn’t just being paranoid and over-cautious. It turns out that their Mannam volunteer organization is devoted to recruiting foreigners for the Shinchonji cult. Their motives seem pretty inscrutable – apparently they organize a lot of seemingly worthwhile activities and their approach to foreigners is very charming and generous, in contrast to the dues levied and duties assigned to Koreans. Is it preparation for a foreign push, or just that weird Korean desire for the affirmation of foreigners?* *A Geek in Korea blog thinks it’s the latter.
The thing is that I quite liked the Korean girl – her English name was Alice – who I had been talking to. I sent her a message, just saying “Shinchonji”. I was curious how she would respond.
A few minutes later she replied, in Korean: “We are not Shinchonji. We are Mannam volunteers.” She had switched to formal Korean. I didn’t reply. If she had spoken any English at all, I might have continued the conversation, but my Korean is too poor to have the kind of conversation that would have been interesting to me. She was pretty, and seemed very nice, and she’s working for a cult. Knowing that, I could have continued the dialogue for the interest of it, if not for the barrier of language. Of course, as the waygook thread makes clear, using attractive young women is part of the Mannam/Shinchonji modus operandi.
Apparently other Mannam groups use Korean language classes as a come-on. If that had been the case I probably would have been happy to overlook their cultish aspects and go along with it. The waygook thread has reports from a few people who’ve been content to use Mannam’s community activities and overlook the proselytizing. I’m confident of my own ability to avoid indoctrination. As it is my main regret is that I will have to start again with finding some Korean friends in this city; ideally ones who can talk about something other than their culty peace festival – whether in English, or Korean, I’m not too concerned.
For more extensive coverage of the Mannam/Shinchonji connection, see this post and the other articles in the series at Scroozle’s Sanctuary.