Leaving a Martial Arts Cult with Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson is a former member of the Korean martial arts cult Chung Moo Quan. After much negative publicity, its name was changed to Oom Yung Doe. Now a professional security consultant, activist, and podcaster, Russell got involved with the cult as a teen and was involved for eight years. We first met in the early 90s when he contacted me after reading Combating Cult Mind Control. My book helped him understand how he had been manipulated in the cult using primary BITE model tactics. I have been on his podcast, Deceived, about his experience in the Chung Moo Quan cult. He is currently working on the development of a documentary series about the cult.  

Russell grew up in a rough neighborhood where violence was common. While he had a wonderful mother, he was from low-income housing, where he experienced childhood violence, which was traumatic. When he was 16, he sought training in martial arts and found the Chung Moo Quan school at a local strip mall. They lied to Russell and told him the school was one of many worldwide, led by “Master” John C. Kim. The school staff claimed that Kim had mystical powers and could do supernatural things like jump from high buildings and survive or heal people with his spiritual powers. They told him that Bruce Lee was a former student of the “Master.” Bruce Lee was known as one of the greatest martial artists of all time. This made Russell feel like he found the “real deal.”

When he first became involved, Russell went through an indoctrination process, which included beatings. The “Master” of that school took a dominant role and made students take a totally submissive role. Russell was taught about the belt levels and was told that as he received more and more training, he could work his way up to be a Black Belt. This meant a considerable commitment of time, money, and obedience. Of course, he had to spend more money on more classes. Despite the traumatic indoctrination process, being in the group did have some of a positive influence on him. Like most teenagers of the time, Johnson had drunk alcohol and smoked pot. He had performed poorly in school. Russell was told that to be in the group, he had to give up the drugs and drinking and get straight A’s. So that’s what he did immediately, and within one semester, he went from Ds and Fs to As.

It wasn’t long before Russell went from victim to victimizer. I experienced this same phenomenon as a member and then leader of the Moon cult in the early 1970s. He was manipulated out of money to give to the school. He had to convince new recruits to do the same. Russell was expected to give these recruits the same bullying and physical abuse he had been given. He found it amazing that once you made a person feel pain, it worked to create a dominant-submissive role. There was even a release form that people had to sign that if you died from anything in the class, the school was not responsible. Russell called it DDM–death doesn’t matter–and if you were to die, it’s your problem. Even if there were a court case citing violence, everyone at the school had to defend the instructor and the school, not the victim. These practices cultivated a model called “true, right, and correct,” the school’s version of the “ends justify the means.” 

The Head Instructor of his school would sometimes leave a list of tasks for Russell to do after the school closed for the day. Once, the Head Instructor wrote a list but forgot to put it where Russell would see it. So, the next day, the Head Instructor was angry at Russell for not doing what he expected would be done. So, he angrily punished and ordered Russell to do 100 repetitions of an extremely difficult type of pushup. It caused blood in his triceps to pool, so his arms swelled to a dangerous level. The Head Instructor of the school tried some acupressure, but it didn’t help. That Head Instructor said he had to wait for a National Instructor who would arrive in a few days and would heal him. Russell understood he couldn’t go to the hospital; it would mean he didn’t trust the school or the “Master.” Still, he was in so much pain he decided to sneak away to a hospital late one night to get some painkillers till the National Instructor could see him. The hospital diagnosed compartment syndrome, a hazardous condition where blood is pooled in an area and cannot flow freely. By the time he got to the hospital, his kidneys were close to failing. The doctors wanted to operate but Russell refused to let them until the Head Instructor arrived at the hospital say that the National Instructor gave permission to operate since he was already there. Russell would spend the next 16 days in the hospital, skin grafts from his leg to close the wounds, he got out on a Saturday and by Monday he was back to teaching class his arms in bandages and needing others to help him dress. 

When he could go back to the classes at the school, each member asked him the same questions: didn’t he know that the school would be able to help him, and why didn’t he trust the school? If Russell were in the changing room with new members who didn’t know about the injury, the other teachers would make them turn their backs on him so they wouldn’t see his scars. Once, two new students saw the scars and told Russell they had heard about a student who didn’t trust the school to help. Then, he realized that he was being treated as a bad example. He was punished for his “lack of faith.” Johnson knew he could have died if he hadn’t gotten medical treatment, but he stayed in the cult and continued training. 

When Russell finally got his black belt, it wasn’t what he thought it would be. He thought it would be something much more, somewhat like what Scientologists are made to believe “going clear” would be. Then, after eight years of training, the opportunity to finally meet Master John C. Kim arrived. Russell went to the event to see the Master and saw all the other remembers in line to meet this short, stocky Korean man with gold chains, an Adidas tracksuit, shank-skinned cowboy boots a “porn star” mustache, and permed hair. He noticed that his very stern instructors acted like children around the Master. These instructors also had permed hair, a “pornstache,” and even spoke broken English like Master Kim. 

Johnson was always working several different jobs, not sleeping much, and always having to pay more money to the school. The school wanted to know his budget and made him feel guilty if he earned enough money to buy things for himself, even if it was much-needed clothing.

Not long after seeing Master Kim and becoming a black belt, Russell realized he had been deceived. Kim was not a respected superior martial artist. Everything he had been promised wasn’t real. Kim did not have supernatural healing powers.  Before Russell was to enter the school, he had to call and ask for permission to come in. One day, after making the call, like a light bulb switching on in his head, he heard a voice in his head telling him that something was wrong. As he put the phone down, he said out loud, “Fuck it, I quit.” He would spend the next six weeks hiding in the darkness of his apartment, in a complete psychological breakdown.

After a couple of years, Russell underwent reconstructive surgery on his arms. The day after leaving the hospital, his phone rang, and it was an instructor from the school wanting to talk to him about returning and the possibility of Russell owning a school. Despite being in a lot of pain from the recent surgery, Russell’s anger toward the school led him to seek advice from an attorney.

The attorney suggested that Russell had been in a cult. Russell went to the library and obtained a copy of the original “Combating Cult Mind Control.” He recognized that his behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions (the BITE model before it was officially called that) were being manipulated. Russell learned that after he had left the school, a Chicago investigative reporter named Pam Zekman did an exposé called “Chung Moo Quan: The Cult and the Con.” Upon viewing the series, Russell understood that everything he had been told was a lie, and that Chung Moo Quan was a destructive martial arts cult. He eventually went public with his story and helped bring the school to trial. Kim was convicted.


Russell Johnson’s podcast Deceived

Court TV The Case Against John C Kim: The Cult Of The Chung Moo Quan 

Martial arts school owners convicted UPI ARCHIVES DEC. 10, 1996

John C. Kim Dead at 82 Chung Moo Quan Martial Arts Master Cult Leader

Ep: 12 CBS Reporter Pam Zekman Exposes Chung Moo Quan As A Cult