Shincheonji: A Cult Engaged in World-Wide Deceptive Recruitment

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned Shincheonji several times, most significantly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cult was  blamed by South Korean officials for the worst outbreak of this virus outside of China, because they took no active measures to prevent the outbreak from spreading. Members are required to always attend services, even if they are sick.  

I recently talked with Jane, an ex-member of this pseudo-Christian cult, about her five years in the cult. My purpose in doing this blog post is to expose the operation and dangers of Shincheonji in as much detail as possible. It is extremely important for everyone to understand that this cult is engaged in a world-wide effort to deceptively recruit members.   

Shincheonji, was founded in South Korea by Man-Hee Lee in the 1980s. Lee claims to have a special ability to interpret Christian scripture, and claims that his interpretations are the only legitimate ones. He also claims he is immortal and salvation can only be obtained through belief in him rather than in Jesus Christ.  

One of the most frequent tactics used in this cult’s recruitment efforts is through so-called Bible study programs that provide academically weak instruction. The Bible study they teach is not based on any legitimate Biblical interpretation, but is designed to promote the messages of the cult. As is done in all cults, any opposition or questioning of cult doctrine by family or friends of cult members is considered to be a “test of faith.” Members are indoctrinated to believe that Satan will work through their family members to try to destroy the “true” church (i.e., Shincheonji). Any concern or questioning expressed by family members about whether their loved one is ensnared in a cult is considered to be Satan’s work. 

Lee was arrested in the late summer of 2020, but,  unfortunately, he was not convicted of the charges relating to the spread of COVID-19. He was found guilty of embezzling $6.5 million, however. The court found that at least part of this money was used to purchase and maintain a luxury “palace of peace” in Seoul. The palace was supposed to be used for church purposes, but Lee did admit to “occasionally” using it as his home. Lee was given a three-year suspended sentence, thus avoiding time in prison.  

Shincheonji: A Smaller Version of the Moonies, But No Less Dangerous 

As Jane and I talked about our cult experiences, it was obvious that both these cults use the same or very similar practices. Shincheonji is incredibly deceptive and people often do not learn about Lee for months. Members are encouraged to lie to their family and friends too by not even disclosing their involvement, unless they believe they are recruitable. Both of them use deceptive recruitment practices, encourage breaking ties with family and friends if they encounter negative responses, and instill fear and suspicion of all “outsiders” in order to completely isolate and indoctrinate members. 

Members are expected to show complete devotion to the leader and the cult beliefs and to devote long hours of work, with no compensation, to support the cult. They are often expected to donate any assets they may have to the cult. Complete dependence on the cult is created this way, making it almost impossible for members to leave. 

BITE Model of Authoritarian Control Analysis of Shincheonji 

Former members have an analysis of Shincheonji using my BITE Model that clearly shows this group is not a harmless church, but, like the Moonies, is an authoritarian cult.

Green means does not apply
Orange means it partially applies (in other words, true for a subsection of members but not rank and file members)
Red means it absolutely applies

Behavior Control
• Regulate an individual’s physical reality
• Dictate where, how and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
Dictate when, how, and with whom the member has sex
• Control types of clothing and hairstyles
• Regulate diet -food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
• Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
• Financial exploitation, manipulation, or dependence
• Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
• Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self-indoctrination, including the Internet
• Permission required for major decisions
• Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and others) reported to superiors
• Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
• Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
• Impose rigid rules and regulations
• Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
• Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
• Threaten harm to family or friends (by cutting off family/friends)
• Force individual to rape or be raped
• Instill dependency and obedience
Information Control
• Deception
     ◦ Deliberately withhold information
     ◦ Distort information to make it more acceptable
     ◦ Systematically lie to the cult member
• Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
     ◦ Internet, tv, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
     ◦ Critical information
     ◦ Former members
     ◦ Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
     ◦ Control through a cell phone with texting, calls, and internet tracking
• Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs Insider doctrines
     ◦ Ensure that information is not easily accessible
     ◦ Control information at different levels and missions within the group
     ◦ Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
• Encourage spying on other members
     ◦ Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
     ◦ Report deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
     ◦ Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by the group
• Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
     ◦ Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies, and other media
     ◦ Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
• Unethical use of confession
     ◦ Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
     ◦ Withholding forgiveness or absolution
     ◦ Manipulation of memory, possibly false memories
Thought Control
• Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
◦ Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
◦ Instill black and white thinking
◦ Decide between good vs. evil
◦ Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
• Change a person’s name and identity
• Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzzwords
• Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
• Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking, and even to age regress the member
• Memories are manipulated and false memories are created (e.g. “1975”)
• Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
◦ Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
◦ Chanting
◦ Meditating
◦ Praying
◦ Speaking in tongues
◦ Singing or humming
• Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
• Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine or policy allowed
• Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil or not useful
• Instill new ‘map of reality’
Emotional Control
• Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong, or selfish
• Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of hopelessness, anger, or doubt
• Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
• Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
◦ Identity guilt
◦ You are not living up to your potential
◦ Your family is deficient
◦ Your past is suspect
◦ Your affiliations are unwise
◦ Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
◦ Social guilt
◦ Historical guilt • Instill fear, such as fear of:
◦ Thinking independently
◦ The outside world
◦ Enemies
◦ Losing one’s salvation
◦ Leaving or being
• Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment, and then declaring you are a horrible sinner
• Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
• Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
◦ No happiness or fulfillment possible outside the group
◦ Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc
◦ Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
◦ Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock-and-roll
• Threats of harm to ex-member and family (threats of cutting off friends/family)

Shincheonji and the Moonies Are Only Two of Many Cults in South Korea

There are hundreds of cults in South Korea, and many of them are engaged in world wide efforts to recruit more members. That is why the work of those like Jane who have managed to escape the mind control of a cult is so important. Providing information and support from ex-members is critical in helping others exit the cult and go through the internal deprogramming that is necessary for them to reclaim their true selves. 

Further Information

Cult or church? This Korean sect has thousands of devotees, but ex-believers lost faith and money – ABC News 

Coronavirus: South Korean Shincheonji sect leader arrested – BBC News 

How one man’s epiphany on a Seoul mountain in 1955 laid the foundation for many religious sects in South Korea – CNN 

Shincheonji Aware- Is my bible study a cult?

[J’s Story] (EN) Did you experience these in SCJ?(2)

YouTube: Shincheonji Exposed – There are many videos by ex-members and critics online

Shincheonji: Who are they? What do they believe in? Why problematic? Former member Stella Kang

[Reality of SCJ 002] Shincheonji cult is very active in the US- a presentation by Korean pastor who has been helping people to exit

Steven Hassan on VICE interview about his journey into and out of Moon cult