On Thursday, July 4, 1996, an LAPD patrol officer on the graveyard shift responded to a call from a Century City condominium; 46-year-old Choi Jin Hyun greeted him at the front door, speaking in — as the patrolman put it — excited, incomprehensible “Oriental.” A Korean-American officer arrived shortly afterward to translate. A prayer session had gone awry. In addition to Choi, two other middle-aged Korean men — both Christian missionaries — waited in the living room, while paramedics attempted to revive an unconscious woman in the bedroom. She exhibited signs of assault: a sunken chest, and purple contusions smattered from knee to hip.
The woman, Chung Kyung Jae, a 53-year-old mother of two teenagers, was pronounced dead a few hours later. The official cause: multiple blunt force trauma. Specifically, her heart had been crushed against her backbone; along with 16 fractured ribs, she’d suffered deep bruising on her pancreas and the muscles of her abdominal wall.
Later that same afternoon, 30 miles northeast of Los Angeles in our periwinkle-painted home, my mother was assembling her American-flag pound cake. She stood at the kitchen counter, dotting one corner of the Cool Whip–covered cake with blueberries, striping the rest with ripe, red fruit. I sat nearby, parked in front of the TV, as BREAKING NEWS suddenly preempted my cartoons. A photo of a familiar-looking man flashed onto the screen. He resembled my father, who’d left earlier that morning for the driving range, his bank holiday ritual. I peered closer, and realized I’d seen this lean and sallow-cheeked man last Thanksgiving: It was my uncle. An odd pair of words — “Local Exorcism” — trimmed the bottom of his mugshot.
The only fact I could squeeze out of my family was this: Your uncle stepped on a woman, and she died.
“What’s an exorcism?” I asked. My mother dropped her berries. I watched her face blanch as the well-coiffed anchorman intoned our family name, Choi, over and over with incriminating flourish. She powered off the TV with trembling hands, then stepped outside, where meat charred on the backyard barbecue. I stared at her from the couch, still waiting for an answer.
My grandmother arrived shortly after; she wept quietly as she devoured a bowl of kimchi, three double cheeseburgers, and two slices of American-flag cake. No one spoke. Even in the years that followed, the only fact I could squeeze out of my family was this: Your uncle stepped on a woman, and she died.
I haven’t seen my uncle in over two decades. But out of curiosity, last winter, I decided to look up his case by googling what little I knew: “Choi Korean exorcism LA.” Soon, headline by headline, my uncle’s story began to take shape: “Exorcism on Trial”; “Korean Missionaries’ Murder Case Pits Religion, Culture and Law”; “Exorcism: A Case of Death by Deliverance Poses Vexing Questions.” The bizarre details — a Korean shamanistic healing ceremony, demon expulsion, a possibly cultish Korean Christian group — startled me and formed a disturbing portrait of a man I barely knew.
In the years that have passed since my uncle’s crime, I’ve noticed South Korean fringe religions surfacing time and again in the news. Even South Korea’s recently ousted president, Park Geun-hye, found herself in a “swirling scandal” involving a “shamanistic cult.” Her troubling ties to the cult’s leader and his “Rasputin-esque” daughter have led Park into political ruin, prompting the country’s first-ever impeachment. The more I uncovered, the more I began to think that my uncle’s scandal, along with Park’s, belonged to a larger phenomenon that has taken root in South Korea: a unique concentration of cults and fringe religious groups, whose influence has drifted overseas, to the US, and into my own family. What started as an idle curiosity about the events of that 4th of July in 1996 quickly gave way to a much bigger mystery: Why do so many cults exist in South Korea? And what has inspired so many Koreans to seek redemption through them?
South Korea’s leading cult expert is Tark Ji-il, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University. When I reached out to him, he said that as a person of Korean descent, this would be a “very meaningful study” for me. It has been for him as well, though for a different, darker reason: Tark’s father, who studied Korean cults for almost 30 years, was murdered by a cult member in 1994.
According to Tark, it’s nearly impossible to determine exactly how many Korean cults exist today, but he estimates the number is likely over 100. A solid statistic is difficult to wrangle, because many cults in South Korea consider themselves Christian entities. According to the 2015 census, 27.6% of South Koreans identify as Christian and 15.5% as Buddhist, while 56.9% of the population align themselves with no religious affiliation, with unregistered groups, or with Sindo (an indigenous folk religion also known as Korean shamanism). A 2012 Pew Research Center study offers similar statistics. Where cults may fit into those numbers, if at all, is unknowable.
But their presence is palpable in South Korea; I came across so many rumors and whispers about celebrities and politicians that I began to think you could link almost anyone or anything, within six degrees of separation, to cultish activity. Even one of the country’s most devastating tragedies in decades, the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry in 2014, could be traced back to a cult. Over 300 passengers drowned, sparking (among other indictments) a nationwide manhunt for Yoo Byung-eun, the chairman of the shipping company that operated the vessel. Yoo had also founded the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, known alternatively as the Salvation Sect, deemed a cult by the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in South Korea.
I’d come across the phrase “new religious movement” — rather than “cult” — a number of times in my research, so I asked Tark for clarification. He said a variety of terms are used to describe groups that exist on the fringes of mainstream religion, whose intentions range from meditative and innocuous, like Falun Gong, to manipulative and destructive, like David Koresh’s Branch Davidians — more than 80 of whom died in an inferno during the 1993 compound siege in Waco, Texas. I’d also read that sociologists popularized the term “new religious movement” to veer away from the derogatory associations with the word “cult,” like the tactics of mind control and brainwashing.
Tark prefers using “cult” or the biblical term “heresy” when referring to any group in Korea that has diverged from mainline churches. Those groups, he told me, typically ascribe to four principles:
1. God, or the Second Coming of Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is Korean.
2. The new revelation or doctrine is written in Korean.
3. The chosen people who will be saved are mostly Korean.
4. The new kingdom will be established in Korea.
Most of these heresies originated during South Korea’s three main periods of political unrest and cultural oppression: Japanese imperialist rule (1910–1945), the Korean War (1950–1953), and postwar dictatorship during massive industrialization (1960–1986). Tark believes this is no coincidence. “Military dictatorship [in Korea] needed blind supporters because they didn’t have any democratic basis, and cults needed an umbrella under which they could hide from mainline churches or surrounding society’s criticism,” he said. New Korea-centric religions, which blend facets of Buddhism, Christianity, and shamanism, appealed to Koreans who were desperate for salvation in times of national despair.
The layers of Korean spirituality are not distinct, but easily blurred.
The founder of a Korean website called antisybi.org has dedicated years to writing about and speaking out against Korean cults. A.S., as I’ll call him, prefers to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his work, and because, he says, his family has received death threats. A.S. told me over the phone that he has been trained in “traditional Korean spirituality,” and has made it his mission to protect “good Korean tradition” from harmful cult influence. Through antisybi.org, A.S. provides “inside information” on Korean cultic organizations, specifically “how they operate, how much they charge, how they coerce people … how they lie, how they deceive.” Victims of cults, and people seeking to help them, often contact A.S. for his guidance, which he offers on a volunteer basis.
A.S. goes one step further than Tark, positing that Korea’s sizable cult presence is a product of a century-long “spiritual inferiority crisis.” Imported faiths dominated Korean history for over 1,500 years. “We never had our own Buddha, our own Confucius,” A.S. told me. “Then somebody comes out and says, I am the savior, I am the Messiah … to have our own deity, of course people would get excited.”
The most enterprising cult leaders in Korea, though, anoint themselves as messiahs by proffering shamanlike, divine clarity. Korean shamanism, which is also known as muism, is a prehistoric belief system native to Korea. Mudangs or baksus, Korean shamans, are mystics and healers, gifted intermediaries between the spirit world and the human plane. Their traditional gut rituals are still performed today, for events like business openings or groundbreaking ceremonies, to help clients establish peace and balance with surrounding energies. In a 1997 article I’d read recounting my uncle’s exorcism case, experts claimed that shamanism “continues to strongly influence Korean thinking … a shaman, like a priest, is believed to possess special powers.”
As an American child, I didn’t grow up visiting shaman fortune-tellers, nor did I attend gut rituals. But my maternal grandmother, a Buddhist turned Christian, often did in Korea. She also claims she can predict the future. My grandmother is not a cult leader or a shaman, but like my uncle, her mixture of beliefs shows the ways in which the layers of Korean spirituality are not distinct, but easily blurred.
Articles unearthed from the Los Angeles Times captured a peculiar courtroom moment at my uncle’s trial: He sat before a Malibu jury 10 months after the death of Chung Kyung Jae, growling “in a fiendish voice,” mimicking the victim’s supposedly bedeviled state. He’d taken a plea deal in exchange for his testimony, which implicated the two Christian missionaries also found at the scene of the crime: the lead exorcist, Rev. Choi Sung Soo (visiting from Bangladesh; no relation to my family), and the deceased’s husband, Chung Jae Whoa — both in their forties.
The Glendale Presbyterian church where my uncle served as deacon happened to host Rev. Choi during his trip to the States. My uncle testified that a demon haunting Chung’s body had caused her to become “spiritually arrogant,” and “at times she refused to obey” her husband; Rev. Choi told the Chungs he was experienced in conducting exorcism rituals. So the couple agreed to participate in ansukido, a combination of prayer and the laying on of hands, led by Rev. Choi.
It’s unclear why my uncle agreed to join, or if he’d ever before performed ansu prayer. But through this practice, the men spent nearly two days trying to expel the demons from Chung’s body, stopping only for a church service in between the hours-long prayer sessions. Accounts vary on the actual number of demons Chung was supposedly harboring, but my uncle claimed they successfully ousted several. Using their hands, feet, and even a spoon, they poked and pressed on Chung until the object of their pursuit, a military spirit named Gundae, appeared near surrender. According to my uncle’s testimony, Rev. Choi stood on top of Chung to force Gundae up through her mouth. When Gundae promised to relocate to a dog’s body next door, the men seized the demon’s weakness and ground their heels into Chung, as if extinguishing a smoldering cigarette. “There was not even one time that she complained or screamed out,” my uncle had told police, as if he couldn’t believe she had perished. “I guess that’s what it takes to get the demons out.”
“I was so close to it, getting rid of the thing,” Rev. Choi had said to an officer. “Maybe I shouldn’t have used the foot.”
The men did not appear to understand their own brutality until it was too late. “I was so close to it, getting rid of the thing,” Rev. Choi had said to an officer. “Maybe I shouldn’t have used the foot.”
One LA Times article, published on April 6, 1997, provided by far the most comprehensive account of Chung’s death and the courtroom hearings that followed; in it, Chung and Rev. Choi’s attorney, Christopher Lee, contends that “based upon their cultural background, this was not such an unreasonable behavior that they were engaged in.” The report also described the ritual as a combination of ancient Asian Korean shamanist principles with Christian prayer. But in another article, Reverend Chun Soon-Young, pastor of neighboring Valley First Presbyterian Church disagrees. “This is an extreme case involving a fringe group of the Korean Christian Community,” Chun said. “I would say that what happened was almost cultist.”
But sources vary on what exactly transpired and why, blurring any conclusive truth I’d been searching for. The Times’ April 6 account notes that all the defendants practiced Korean Pentecostal Christianity (a form of Charismatic Christianity), which emphasizes the possibility of modern-day miracles through the work of the Holy Spirit. Korean Charismatic Christians often perform an aggressive variation of ansu prayer known as anchal prayer. Deputy District Attorney Hank Goldberg argued during the trial that Rev. Choi was “an ambitious exorcist out to make a name,” and that Choi intended to perform a religious act so outrageous he’d be jailed and martyred by the Korean Pentecostal Church. However, in a profile of my uncle’s congregation, which is Presbyterian — not Pentecostal — one member calls the exorcism “so out of the ordinary, it is beyond my understanding.” In the same piece, the president of Southern California Korean Churches describes anchal prayer as a pleasant-sounding “kind of religious body massage,” unlike the April 6 story that says the technique can lead to “twisting or slapping” the possessed.
Two other exorcisms involving Korean assailants made US news in the late 1990s, bookending my uncle’s trial. Both were spearheaded by persuasive individuals, like Rev. Choi, who seemed eager to work miracles in the name of God. In March 1995, a Korean Christian fundamentalist sect called the Jesus-Amen Ministries, based in Emeryville, California, prayed over and killed a woman with schizophrenia, striking her nearly 100 times on the face and chest. Their self-proclaimed leader purportedly told the police that the deadly ritual was “a victory for Jesus Christ.” In August 1996, a Korean surgeon in Chicago punched and choked his wife, with the aid of an evangelical minister, to make her a “better Christian.” The Chicago Tribune reported that this series of crimes offered a “troubling glimpse into a booming brand of Korean evangelism that straddles denominational lines,” especially attractive to deeply religious, homesick immigrants obsessed with demonology. The opportunistic few who lead the way provide hope to those, like the Chungs, “hungry for miracles.”
In May 1997, my uncle pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years’ probation. My family never discussed this; he simply materialized one Thanksgiving for dinner, and that was that. I was a teenager by then, and knew only that he’d killed a woman, so I avoided holding hands with him during our pre-meal prayer circle. As Grandma Choi blessed our feast, rather than close my eyes, I monitored him from across the circle. Brow furrowed, he shouted Hallelujah! every other beat with such frenzied conviction that I had to look away.
Meanwhile, beyond the realm of our home in Southern California, accounts of other religious, fanatical Koreans began to emerge. Tell-all memoirs, international investigations, and even a 60 Minutes feature exposed the inner workings of the Unification Church, a South Korean “new religion” originally founded by leader and “true father” Moon Sun Myung in 1954. Moon’s group had successfully evangelized in the US and as far abroad as Russia and Czechoslovakia, boasting a membership of up to 3 million followers worldwide. Their nickname, the “Moonies,” had become synonymous with bright-eyed and brainwashed worshippers, who agreed to arranged marriages and mass weddings, squandering their life savings, toiling 21 hours a day, seven days a week; who later, spell broken, required intensive “deprogramming” in a harrowing reacclimation to life beyond the fold.
Through true crime TV documentaries, I’d already learned about America’s most infamous cult leaders: 1960s counterculture commune proponents like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. But to me those men symbolized a bygone era; abstract figures who no longer threatened any imminent danger. Anyway, I wasn’t a hippie-bus-riding Mary Jo or a flaxen-haired, hitchhiking Linda Dee; you wouldn’t find my pale body lost in Topanga Canyon. Born to immigrant, blue-collar parents, I did not fear what appeared to be perils for the white bourgeoisie. Moon was different: round-faced like my dad, soft-eyed like my uncle. This man who claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ was Korean, just like us.
Moon’s zealotry and international appeal shocked Koreans like my mother, though. To her, Moon was a shameful outlier of the Korean community whose unseemly behavior she hoped might quickly pass into memory. He mostly has, punctuated by his death in 2012, but his church recently reappeared in an unexpected way. When the White House blocked several news outlets from an off-camera briefing with press secretary Sean Spicer last month, one of the hand-picked organizations permitted to attend, aside from Breitbart News, was the Washington Times — a conservative newspaper founded by Moon in 1982, and currently owned by a subsidiary of the Unification Church. Moon’s legacy, which has continued to thrive beyond the ’90s controversies of my youth, illustrates the lasting cultural impact of these spiritual leaders — and their enormous reach.
I wasn’t a hippie-bus-riding Mary Jo, or a flaxen-haired, hitchhiking Linda Dee; you wouldn’t find my pale body lost in Topanga Canyon.
Steven Hassan, a former Unification Church member turned mental health counselor, devoted two and a half years to Moon’s organization in the mid-’70s. As someone who once led front groups and recruitment efforts in the US, he is well-versed in the methods of cult indoctrination. In his book Combating Cult Mind Control, he argues that cults don’t necessarily seek out “losers, loners, [and] outcasts,” but rather target “normal people with balanced lives” at times when they happen to be most susceptible to influence — due to loss, big life transitions, or other “situational vulnerabilities.” Which is to say that almost anyone can potentially fall victim to cult manipulation.
Hassan was raised an extra-honors student by a conservative Jewish family in Queens. He recounted how one day at Queens College, fresh from a recent breakup, three flirtatious Japanese women approached him at the school cafeteria. They introduced themselves as members of One World Crusade, a nonreligious club dedicated to overcoming cultural differences. But, as Hassan describes in his book, the One World meetings he began to attend eventually led to a “joint workshop” with the Unification Church, and it became clear that the group was in fact a front for Moon’s organization.
“I was made to believe WWIII was about to happen, and that Sun Myung Moon, the Messiah, was on the earth,” Hassan told me over the phone. “These were the last days, God was going to judge everybody, the Garden of Eden was going to be established, and I was either gonna follow my destiny and help God do this great thing or I was going to be cursed forever by all my ancestors in the spirit world.”
As a recruiter, Hassan indoctrinated people into this closed system of obedience, which is dependent on a leader and cause. Since leaving the church, he has become one of the foremost authorities on undue influence and has developed a method that identifies how destructive cults recruit and manipulate their followers — through what he calls the “BITE model”: behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. “If people want to believe that Sun Myung Moon — or Charles Manson, or their dog — is the Messiah, that is their right,” Hassan shares in his book. “However — and this is a crucial point — people need to be protected from processes that make them believe Manson or Moon is the Messiah.”
In a story fit for a K-drama, the recent downfall of South Korean president Park Geun-hye can be traced directly back to her entanglement with a Korean cult leader. Park hails from political lineage; her father, former president and dictator Park Chung-hee, gained power through a coup in 1961. His daughter stepped in as first lady when her mother was assassinated in 1974. Soon after, Choi Tae-Min, leader and founder of the shamanistic cult Church of Eternal Life, approached young Park Geun-hye, claiming that her dead mother had appeared to him in his dreams. When her father too was assassinated in 1979, Park mourned in a house enshrined with photos and relics of her murdered parents, while Choi (again, no relation) strengthened his mentorship ties to his newly orphaned protégé. The American Embassy in Seoul reported rumors, in a diplomatic cable made public via WikiLeaks in 2007, that Choi “had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
Choi died in 1994, at which point his daughter, Choi Soon-sil, stepped into her father’s role as Park’s spiritual adviser and closest friend. By the time Park rose to political prominence with her presidential victory in 2012, Choi Soon-sil had ensconced herself as an indispensable confidante. Though she held no security clearance or official government title, Choi Soon-sil influenced Park’s decision making, from handbag choices to state affairs. In one of several public announcements prior to her impeachment, Park denied any involvement with a cult, rejecting popular public criticism that she’d allowed shamanistic rituals to take place on government property.
Though Park does not appear to have been an official member of the Church of Eternal Life, the Chois’ influence over her is in line with how cult leaders manipulate their followers. “Based on my observations,” A.S. of antisybi.org told me over the phone, “the way [Park] reacted on camera and politically, the way she responded back to media, it’s a pretty typical response to the confrontation of cult involvement.”
People grappling with their cult identity often undergo stages of denial and anger, A.S. explained. “I’ve been looking at photos, and [Park was] going through all those stages.” A.S., who emphasized that this was only his subjective opinion, told me he recognized Park’s “blank look,” characteristic of those who have been compromised by cults. He also told me that “when you join a cult organization, the first thing [they] artificially create is an environment of isolation and loneliness.” Park herself admitted her vulnerability in a televised apology. In it, she appeared wan and thin, near tears. “Living by myself, I didn’t have many people to help me,” she said. “It’s true that I had lowered the barriers between us … because [Choi Soon-sil] stood by me through the most difficult times.”
Now, with her official removal from office, South Korea enters what appears to be a fourth period of national crisis. Park Geun-hye’s scandal has plunged her country into political chaos. Stripped of executive immunity, she must address her role in a corruption scandal as South Korea scrambles to elect a new leader in less than 60 days. North Korea’s escalated nuclear gambits also remind us of the peninsula’s fragility; the North has renounced the Korean Armistice Agreement at least six times since 1994, with no peaceful resolution on the horizon. “In times of critical situations,” Tark warns us, “cults or new religious movements can rise easily.”
I grew up in an all-Korean Presbyterian church that Tark might classify as “mainline.” Our experiences never dipped into the extreme: no speaking in tongues or doomsday countdowns, let alone exorcisms. My mother sang in the Praise Team; my father was a tenor in the choir. The most deviant act we committed involved Hawaiian bread and Welch’s grape juice, our congregation’s version of Communion crackers and wine.
I loved Jesus. At my most fervent stage, I was a bespectacled, brace-faced late bloomer, who glommed on to the gospel like a barnacle to a humpback. I learned that God loved me too, for all my ungainliness, in an unconditional way my middle-school classmates could not. On Sundays, I volunteered to pass out program pamphlets before service, warbled hymns with my eyes closed, and zealously mimed body worship choreography to psalms in every holiday performance. My spiritual gusto even earned me a nickname from the pastor’s wife: Little Deacon.
But as effortlessly as I’d embraced church, so too did I abandon it. Adolescence ushered in contact lenses and a driver’s license, and suddenly the world seemed too small among those wooden pews. I bucked all my Sunday responsibilities with surprising ease. I think this tormented my mother — yet, outside of mandatory Christmas services, she permitted me the latitude of choice.
There is a vast difference between freely making a choice and having that choice made for you.
The word heresy, Tark told me, derives from the Greek hairesis, meaning “choice” or “thing chosen.”
But there is a vast difference between freely making a choice and having that choice made for you. Destructive spiritual leaders, on the fringes of religion or not, can offer people — like Steven Hassan, or even my uncle — the illusion of autonomy, when their convictions are actually of someone else’s choosing.
I don’t think my uncle was ever part of a cult. It seems much more plausible that he considered himself a “thing chosen” by God, destined to rescue those in spiritual peril. During the 1990s swell of Korean healing rituals, a Chicago Tribune writer concluded that the “quick-fix promises of anchal prayer” proved especially appealing to hardworking, first-generation Korean immigrants, like my uncle, “struggling for survival” in America. If I’ve found a common thread that connects South Korea’s proliferation of cults to my uncle’s story, it’s that people who are most vulnerable to spiritual manipulation are seeking a way to be seen, to reconcile with despair or displacement. Maybe too, that by performing miracles, or by accepting a doctrine that has “chosen you,” one can find themselves closer to God — transcending, if only for a little while, the otherwise unavoidable shortcomings of reality.
I’m not sure where my uncle is today or what he’s doing. The last time I saw him was at one of our Thanksgiving feasts, in the late 1990s. Of that day I remember his wife most, a soft-spoken Korean woman with tattooed eyebrows that made her appear to be constantly perturbed. She’d given birth to their son while my uncle awaited trial in jail. They named the boy Yoseph, after the Bible’s Joseph, known best as Jesus Christ’s earthly father. My sister hears through the family grapevine that our uncle is still an avid churchgoer. “I think he’s toned it down a bit,” she told me, “but I’m not sure.”
I can’t help but wonder if our uncle still inhabits the same blurry spiritual terrain that once compelled him to exorcise demons. Even if he doesn’t, others have continued in his stead. A month ago, a court in Frankfurt sentenced a 44-year-old South Korean woman to six years in prison for her role in a violent exorcism. The case echoed familiar, gruesome details: a two-hour prayer session conducted in a hotel room that ended with the death of a 41-year-old Korean mother. The victim’s 16-year-old son, her niece and nephew (aged 19 and 21, respectively), as well as another 15-year-old boy, all held down the “possessed” woman, and muffled her cries by stuffing her mouth with a balled-up cloth and clothes hanger. They beat her until she suffocated. By one account, the perpetrators practiced “a form of Christianity with influences from an ancient Asian shamanist religion.” But which exact form of Christianity no one can seem to determine.
I don’t imagine Frankfurt will be the last we hear of these cases. The appeal of redemption is evergreen. It must be a kind of relief, for those who give their lives over to a higher power, to trust that a better future awaits them — to surrender and simply believe.
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