It is perhaps a quirk of fate that the release of serial rapist and cult leader Jeong Myeong-seok coincides with the spreading of the #MeToo campaign in South Korea.
Jeong, released from jail in the city of Daejeon on Feb. 18, was imprisoned for a decade after raping female followers. Commonly known as JMS, which stands for Jesus Morning Star as well as being the leader’s initials, Jeong’s cult, which claims 120,000 members, has not faded during the decade of its leader’s incarceration. Rather, it has expanded worldwide and cemented the cult of personality surrounding its ‘persecuted’ leader. Under the guise of various front groups aimed at appealing to attractive and tall young women, Jeong’s lieutenants have continued to groom young women to believe Jeong is God personified.
Critics and former members fear that Jeong, 72, still poses a threat to young women under his influence. Dr. Tark Ji-il, professor of theology at Busan Presbyterian University and son of murdered cult critic Tark Myeong-hwan, said, “Since Jeong’s sexual abuse is deeply related to his doctrine, it is going to be difficult for him not to practice his doctrine. Sexual abuse may not be his choice but destiny as the Messiah. He will be continually interested in sexuality in the name of spirituality.”
The coincidence of Jeong’s release and #MeToo provides a timely opportunity to explore the history and tactics of JMS. When it comes to such predators, forewarned is forearmed.
There is no shortage of cults in South Korea, but JMS is unique in being led by a convicted sexual predator whose organization functions to satisfy his violent urges. Sexual abuse exists in many cults, but I have yet to hear of a cult that is so dedicated to the indoctrination and grooming of women to manufacture their consent, and if that fails, to place them in an environment where they are vulnerable to rape and easily intimidated into silence.
Like the paths of many self-proclaimed Messiahs, Jeong’s rise to cult leadership was paved with exposure to an earlier ‘messianic’ movement. In Jeong’s case, it was the Unification Church of Reverend Moon Sun-myung, a.k.a. the “Moonies,” that provided the blueprint. After several years as a Moonie, Jeong established JMS in 1978.
JMS is essentially a miniature version of Moon’s cult: from its Bible studies that ‘prove’ the messianic credentials of its leader, to mass arranged marriages, to the use of numerous transitory front groups. The beliefs of JMS, where sexual intercourse with the Messiah, i.e. Jeong, allegedly cleanses Original Sin, can be traced back to Rev. Moon and earlier Korean Christian groups such as one led by messianic minister Baek Moon Kim, whom Moon studied under. Those practices are documented in Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, which explores the histories and theologies of various cults including Moon’s Unification Church.
Jeong gained national notoriety when he fled South Korea in 1999, a day after rape allegations against him aired on SBS, one of South Korea’s major broadcasters. According to South Korean police, rape charges were filed in 2001; Interpol issued a red notice in January 2004. While evading arrest, Jeong left a trail of sexual assault allegations behind him, most notably in Taiwan and in Japan in 2006, prompting a senior member to flee the country.
Exodus, an anti-JMS NGO comprised of dozens of former members and concerned citizens, formed to help victims, raise awareness, and track the fugitive Jeong. In 2001, Exodus members told The China Post that the number of victims of sexual abuse by Jeong could exceed 500. One former JMS member told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in 2006 that by 2002 there were well over 100 victims from Japan alone. In 2001, former members estimated that a similar number of victims were in Taiwan.
In 2003, Exodus helped immigration officers in Hong Kong find Jeong and arrest him for visa violations. Jeong fled while on bail before South Korean authorities could request extradition. In retaliation, the elderly father of Exodus founder Kim Do-hyun was bashed in the head with a steel pipe by JMS members.
Jeong was eventually arrested in China in 2007 and extradited to South Korea. Unhappy with media coverage, several JMS members broke into the offices of Donga Ilbo, a national daily, and assaulted staff. Jeong was eventually found guilty of raping four female members and given a six-year prison sentence that was extended on appeal to ten.
In his book Parables: Resource Book, first published in 1984, Jeong describes the “most ideal human society” as being similar to a bee hive, in which each bee has a lover-relationship with its queen, is always busy, and knows that defection results in death. The JMS cult — or to use its own official name, the Christian Gospel Mission (CGM) — exists to create and maintain such a society.
According to numerous testimonies from former followers and victims, Jeong’s modus operandi involves a highly structured organization. Recruitment of female followers often begins through modeling, dancing, and sporting front groups, some of which are visible on JMS sites and social media. To help gain the trust of female recruits and to create a “safe” environment, such fronts are often led by female members. Where Bible studies provide an entry point, they are sometimes billed as women-only Bible studies.
Once Bible studies commence, the concept of a sexual relationship with God/the Messiah is gradually introduced. The Old Testament is defined as a period in which the relationship between God and mankind is one of master and servant. The New Testament is defined as a period in which the relationship between God and mankind is like that between father and son. The Completed Testament period, which Jeong claims to be ushering in, is a period in which that relationship has evolved to that of lovers.
During his fugitive years, Jeong received from senior members photos of young members wearing bikinis complete with their body measurements and contact details, according to Exodus. Through these documents and communication channels, he selected those he wished to meet.
According to testimonies from Taiwanese and Japanese members, Jeong would ask women to remove items of clothing under the guise of a health check. With Jeong’s bodyguards and most fanatical followers in neighboring rooms, they would have had no one to turn to for help.
While he was in jail, JMS continued to both harm and groom victims. Liz, a former Australian member who visited Jeong in jail, told an Australian TV channel in 2014: “At times I felt suicidal.… The only way I could describe it was rape. Even though it wasn’t physical, it was mental and it was emotional and it was spiritual rape. … My head leader [supervisor] was telling me to write to [Jeong] like he was my husband or like he was my lover, and he would write back in the same way. Some of the letters were quite intimate. So, he would say things like, women are much more beautiful when they are naked. And he said my white skin arouses him.”
While Jeong’s crimes and his fugitive years are well documented, it is a history his followers are keen to erase. One front in their propaganda war has been the group’s Wikipedia page, gradually whitewashed by several members including an Australian Taxation Office lawyer. The lawyer’s account was banned from Wikipedia after dozens of pro-JMS edits were made between August 2015 and April 2016. Cleansing Wikipedia has proven difficult since then, but his followers face no barriers when it comes to their own websites, which have increased in number over recent years.
One such example is the website Providence News. Its articles claim to detail the “truth” behind Jeong’s scandals, the injustice of his conviction, and the character flaws of his victims and critics. Several articles are purported to be the works of independent journalists.
If the articles touted as independent were indeed written by non-members, their opinions conveniently match the fictitious image of Jeong that JMS presents to the outside world. Aspects of JMS that demand criticism are ignored. There is no mention, for example, of a sermon Jeong delivered in 1998 at an arena in Seoul’s Olympic Park where he praised Hitler and the Holocaust. “That [the crucifixion of Jesus] is why Hitler killed 6 million Jews in the gas chamber and rung oil from them. If you don’t think that was a great thing, you have nothing to do with me or with salvation,” he said.
In early 2015, some ten years after I had first posted online the full sermon transcript supplied to me by a former member, a graduate student at the University of Arizona that I am certain is a JMS member filed a copyright complaint against me on behalf of JMS, thereby confirming the quote’s authenticity. In 2016, Pastor Choi Chul-hwan, JMS spokesperson and director of external affairs, denied such teachings in an interview with British tabloid Daily Mail.
The personality cult that surrounds Jeong has intensified over recent years. The church maintains that Jeong is innocent. According to “revelations” from heaven that the church propagates and I have seen, the leadership preaches internally that Satan is behind the allegations, the guilty verdict and critical media reports. Liz, the Australian convert, and other former JMS members told me that during Jeong’s time in prison, groups of mostly female members regularly visited him. Internal sermons continued to demand obedience and proclaim him as the Messiah.
Hours after he was released from prison, Jeong returned to Wolmyeong Dong, the base of his cult and the place of his birth. The secluded mountains outside the town of Geumsan in South Chungcheong Province provide an ideal location for the base of a secretive personality cult.
In South Korea, recent JMS activity has reportedly been observed on more than 40 campuses nationwide and in 20 high schools in Gyeonggi Province, via an alleged front that gives motivational speeches to students. It is indicative of how JMS operates worldwide: In 2006, numerous Japanese media companies, including The Japan Times, reported on JMS proselytization at universities. Campus activity has also been exposed in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Former members believe that Malaysia and Taiwan are now the two Asian countries with the most JMS members outside South Korea, with perhaps more than 1,000 members each. In the U.S., the cult’s main centers are in Houston, California, Hawaii, and New York with probably well fewer than 1,000 dedicated followers combined. Exact numbers are difficult to determine. To go by its own websites, Facebook pages, and testimonies by former members, JMS also has presences in Canada, England, South Africa, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, The Philippines and Singapore.
To suppress opposition, the cult files criminal complaints against critics. As a JMS-watcher for over a decade, I have had my share of bizarre experiences. In 2012, I shared damning videos which were first shown at a press conference given by former members in 2012. The heavily-pixelated videos show seven unidentifiable naked female members calling out their love for Jeong. Three years later, and after Pastor Choi Chul-hwan of JMS sent me several text messages promising to personally sue me, seven women claiming to be those in the videos filed criminal charges against me for defamation, sharing pornographic material, and strangely enough, copyright infringement. It was a startling admission that the videos are authentic.
Following a quite surreal interview, the investigating police officer at Yongsan police station handling the case recommended the charges be dropped. Prosecutors are, however, not obliged to follow police recommendations, and in December 2015 I was called to attend a mediation session at which I was presented a document prepared by JMS that promised the complaints from the women would be withdrawn — provided I apologize, close my website, and promise never to discuss JMS again.
I answered no without hesitation. Two months later, the case against me was dropped by prosecutors on the grounds that my actions were not illegal and that I had acted in the public interest. Pastor Choi sent me a text message at the time, informing me that members would continue to file criminal charges against me until I am jailed. Another defamation complaint was made in January 2017. That was also dismissed after the same investigating officer made the same recommendation.
While Jeong is now out of jail, there are some restrictions placed on him as a convicted sex offender. He is required to wear a monitoring anklet for seven years. Such anklets are, however, better suited for lone offenders who do not have thousands of enablers. The anklet, which at least serves as a visible reminder of Jeong’s conviction, will not stop Jeong’s senior followers from bringing him more victims.
Cover image: Jesus. (padreoswaldo via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)
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