At 24, Kim Eun-kang was pursuing her dream of becoming a traditional Korean music singer. But she gave it all up to compete for a chance at immortality.
“I truly believed that I was going to live forever,” the now 31-year-old told the ABC.
When she joined Shincheonji Church of Jesus in 2014, the church’s spiritual leader Lee Man-hee was aggressively and successfully courting new followers.
Shincheonji was drawing away members from mainstream Christian denominations, who likened the sect to a cult.
The church has its own calendar and would hold large-scale outdoor events filled with followers — all built around the personality, prestige and purported power of its leader.
The proselytizing worked on a young and drifting Ms Kim. Despite her talent and the way her career as a singer was developing, she wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
She hadn’t previously been religious but says the church seemed to offer the possibility of something greater.
“Lee Man-hee said he possessed the spirit of Jesus. When he was shown in TV or in public, I would just start to cry. I felt some aura around him.”
For Ms Kim, joining the church was about much more than just attending a service once a week.
“I quit my job, I devoted all time and started living in the Shincheonji,” she said.
She said she was expected to spread the message of the church and bring in new members.
“When I was there I was like a robot,” she remembered.
“I could not think by myself, I just listened to what I was told — brainwashed — followed what I was told. I would perform like an actress and promote the religion to others.”
Why Shincheonji vie for a place in the afterlife
Shincheonji devotees are looking forward to the day when they will be judged.
Just 144,000 true believers will be promoted to high priests following the apocalypse, according to followers.
The number comes from the Book of Revelation’s Chapter 7, which it simply interprets. The interpretations of the Jehovah Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are identical.
This creates a dilemma for Shincheonji members: the church has about 204,000 members, meaning that about 60,000 are unable to achieve elevated status.
Byun Sang-wook is a well-known South Korean news anchor who produced a documentary series on Shincheonji.
He claims that the “high priest” status cut-off encourages devout people to compete for a role, which is beneficial to the church.
“Competition results in members doing more work in Shincheonji, giving more money to Shincheonji and bring more members to Shincheonji,” Mr Byun said.
“This is difficult to do while working or studying, so Shincheonji encourages them to quit, telling them there’s no use in finishing school when the apocalypse is coming soon.”
Shincheonji denied this in a statement to the ABC.
“Shincheonji Church of Jesus has about 200,000 believers, and most of them live daily lives in very ordinary families,” the church said.
Why so many fringe religions flourish in Korea
Christianity has a short history in South Korea compared to Europe, but it has been very effective in converting believers.
Despite the fact that preachers first arrived in South Korea in the 18th century, about a third of the country’s 51 million citizens now call themselves Christians.
Many of the sects that have sprung up reflect the teachings of ultra-conservative sects scattered throughout the American bible belt. Presbyterian missionaries from the United States were instrumental in influencing the development of the religion.
Shamanism has a long history in the world, and in these fringe sects, it appears to have merged with traditional Christian beliefs.
The Unification Church is perhaps Korea’s most well-known sect.
Sun Myuung-moon, the self-proclaimed messiah, created it in 1954, and his followers are known as ‘Moonies.’
The sect gained notoriety in the media for its penchant for mass marriages, which were often performed in sports stadiums with tens of thousands of couples.
Another fringe sect wielded power in South Korea’s most influential political office.
Park Geun-hye, the former president of South Korea, was impeached and later imprisoned on charges of bribery, intimidation, and abuse of power.
Her lifelong relationship with a mysterious figure from an obscure religious cult who critics dubbed a “shaman fortune teller” took her down.
Shincheonji made his debut in Korean religion in 1984.
Source: ABC World News