Coronavirus COVID-19 in South Korea: Cult Sect, Corruption and Politics

In South Korea, on January 20, a woman of 35 years old from China was found to be infected and the corona-virus spread rapidly. But, owing to the rapid and efficient measures taken by the government of Moon Jae-in, the spread of the virus almost stopped and the number of cured began to increase.

And the WHO and the international media praised highly the efficient measures taken by the Korean government.

However, after the thirty-first person was found infected on February 7, the number of the infected skyrocketed and, as of March 5, it reached almost 5,800. This person is a member of the cult sect, the Shincheonji.

What is happening? Why the sudden explosion of the infected?

I argue that the combination of the collusion between the conservative party and a cult sect, corruption and politics are related to the present virus crisis in South Korea. 

This paper has three sections. In the first section, I will show the origin and the activities of the religious cult sect, Shincheonji. In the second section, I will discuss the corrupted link between the cult sect and the conservative politicians. Finally, in the final section, I will analyse the conservative party’s possible use of the virus crises as a tool of winning the general election to be held on the 15th of April.

The Cult Sect

The full name of the cult sect in question is Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (the Shincheonji).

Image result for Shincheonji

Shin-cheon-ji means : the “New Heaven and Earth”;  Shin (New)- Cheon (Heaven)-Ji (Earth).

The Shincheonji was established in 1984, by the cult leader Lee Man-hee as a Christian church which is regarded as heretic cult by the mainstream churches and many religion-related experts.

South Korea has been the popular target of heresies and cult sects. There are perhaps more than one million followers of cult sects. One of the reasons of this situation is known to be the failure of meeting people’s spiritual needs by the mainstream Christian church.

By and large, three heretic dogmas are prevailing. The first is the criminal use of the Christian eschatology, that is, the doctrine of the end of the world. The second is the distorted use of the doctrine of salvation. The third is the combination of the two.

The cult sects announce a specific year of the end of the world, for instance October 24, 1992 set up by the cult (Dami-kyo: Coming- Future Church). There were other cases: November, 1969 and September, 1987 announced by other cult sects.

The Shincheonji predicted the end of the world once in 1991. It did not happen. So, it picked this time 2000. Having seen that the end of the world did not come in 2000, the cult said that the end of the world will come when there will be 144,000 members of the Shincheonji.

Well, when the predicted number of 144,000 was approaching, Lee Man-hee knew that his prophesy was a lie. This time, he said that the end of the world will come only when God picks 144,000.

The cult sect attracts a huge crowd of people and convinces them to give up all earthly things including real estate, money, wives and daughters. In this way, the cult leader becomes millionaire and commits all kind of crimes including sexual violence and violation of the human rights.

The central elements of Shincheonji’s cult doctrine include the following:

Image result for Lee Man-hee

First, the sect leader, Lee Man-hee (image on the left) is the “Messiah” who came to earth to save the world; he is regarded as immortal.

Second, Lee Man-hee teaches that only 144,000 persons could be saved and go to heaven; this belief is based on the statement of the Book of Revelation in the News Testament.

“I was told that the number of those who were called with God’s seal on their head was 144,000. They were from twelve tribes in Israel, twelve thousand from each tribe.” (Revelation 7:5-8)

The name of the cult comes also from the Book of Revelation.

“There I saw a new heaven and earth.” (Revelation 21: 1)

Third, to become one of the 144,000 selected, one has to obey the cult leader.

The Shincheonji has become one of the main global cult sects. The geographical distribution of its members in 2019 was: China (18,440), the U.S. (4,264), Mongolia (2,773), South Africa (1,403), Uganda (1,031), the Philippines (704), Australia (579), Germany (547), Japan (358), other non-Korean countries (1,750). The total number of the members outside South Korea was 31,852.

As of 2019, there were 239,353 members in South Korea alone. So, the total number of the followers of the Shincheonji cult was 271,205.

The Shincheonji’s the annual revenue is said to be about US$1 billion. Nobody knows the exact figure, but one thing sure is that it is very wealthy.

Thus, we have a huge and awfully well funded cult sect. Therefore, if it decides to obstruct the anti-virus efforts of the progressive government of Moon Jae-in, it can do it very well.

Unfortunately, there are signs showing that the cult is obstructing, most likely intentionally, the government’s effort to beat the COVID-19. We will see this later in this paper.

Corruption: Collusion between the Conservative party and the Shincheonji

The Sincheonji is a heretic cult. But, it is amazing that it has more than survived despite sustained attacks and criticism by mainstream churches and media.

There can be several reasons for its success including the efficiency of brainwashing, productive recruiting, strong discipline and the blind obedience of its members.

However, the most significant reason for its success is the close collusion with the conservative politicians. To have collusion, each party involved should get something in return.

For the conservative politicians, the Shincheonji may provide political funds and well disciplined members who are the precious human resource to be used for political activities.

On the other hand, for the Shincheonji, the conservative politicians could be its best protector from the prosecution for its crimes including illegal or immoral recruiting of the youth, embezzling of public funds, stealing members’ properties and many other crimes.

The collusion between the Shincheonji and the conservative party has been translated into close cooperation in various manners.

However, before we discuss the modality of cooperation, it is important to trace back the historical background of such cooperation.

The world remembers that General Park Chung-hee snatched the power by military coup in 1962 ending up with a government with little legitimacy. The lack of his government’s legitimacy meant poor popular support. To rule, he needed as many blind supporters as possible. He found them among the followers of the cult sects.

Choe Tae-min was one of the cult leaders who could provide such human resources. Choe established, in 1973, a cult called “Yeong-seh church” which was one of the most heretic churches in Korea based on the curious combination of Buddhism, Christianity and the Chun-do-kyo (way to heaven).

Chun-do-kyo is a Korean brand of traditional East Asian religions including Shamanism. In his cult sect, Choe Tae-min pretended to be “Miroogi” (Messiah).

It is reported that Choe’s Yeong-seh church and the Shincheonji was closely connected and this connection continued through Park Geun-hye, daughter of General Park Chung-hee and Chie-Soon-sil, daughter of Choe Tae-min.

Here, in order to better understand the connection between the conservatives and the Shincheonji, we have to understand the relationship between the family of General Park and the family of the cult leader Choe.

The first lady of General Park Chung-hee, mother of Park Geun-hye, was murdered by mistake in 1974 by a North Korean spy from Japan. After the death of her mother, Park Geun-hye became closely linked with Choe Tae-min and the “Yeong-Seh” church.

In 1974, Choe Tae-min was 62 years old, while Park Geun-hye was  22 years old. In that year, General Park Chung-hee was 58 years old.

Choe Tae-min became the most trusted moral and spiritual guide of Park Geun-hye; Choe’s influence on Park Geun-hye was so great that Choe was said to have utterly controlled Park Geun-hye’s mind and body.

Choe Tae-min died in 1994. This means that, for more than twenty years, Park Geun-hye was well exposed to Choe Tae-min’s cult doctrine.

After the death of Choe Tae-min, his daughter Choe Soon-sil took over the cult. She became inseparable friend of Park Geun-hye. Thus, the connection of Park Geun-hye with the cult would have become even more extensive.

In fact, during the four years of tragic presidency of Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) her government was often called the “shamanistic” regime.

Coming back to the issue of the COVID-19, the danger is that about 70% of the infected are the Shincheonji members. Therefore, to beat the virus, the government of Moon Jae-in needs the Shincheonji’s cooperation. But, the cult does not cooperate.

I will discuss later how the cult does not cooperate. What interests me now is the reason of non-cooperation by the cult with government.

I argue that the reason of the Shincheonji’s non-cooperation is its intention of providing electoral advantage to the conservative party at the coming general election to be held on April 15.

However, unless the cult is intimately colluded with the conservative government, the Shuncheonji would not take the policy of non-cooperation with government in power at the risk of punitive actions which can be taken by the government.

In fact, the cult-conservative party collusion and cooperation is quite substantial. There are several signs of such collusion and cooperation.

First, the names of the conservative party and the cult are identical.

The name of the cult is Shincheonji; it is written in Chinese characters: Shin(新-new)- Cheon (天-heaven)- Ji (地-earth).

Now, the conservative party chose in 2002, as its new name, in Korean “hangeul” (Korean alphabet) was Sae (새-new) -Noori(누리-heaven and earth)- Dang (Party)

At that time, Park Geun-hye was the leader of the conservative party. It appears that it was she who insisted to pick this name.

Second, Park Geun-hye and the Lee Man-hee, the cult leader, met frequently. In the 2000s, Park Geun-hye sent greeting massages to Lee Man-hee.

Third, the Christian Council of Korea announced in 2012 that there was close link between the conservative party and the Shincheonji.

Fourth, in 2002, Cha Ha-sun, a member of the Shincheonji recruited 10, 000 new members of the conservative party.

Fifth, in the 2000s, an elder of the Shincheonji was nominated in a few committees of the conservative party.

Sixth, two lawmakers of the conservative party are known to be closely connected to the Shincheonji, namely, Kim Jin-tae and Kwak Sung-do.

Seventh, members of the Shincheonji are often nominated as staff of the conservative party leaders: the office of Lee Jung-hyun in 2006 was an example.

Eighth, in the 2000s, the conservative lawmaker, Kwak Sung-do was involved in the scandal of bank loans of US$ 1.8 billion for the Shincheonji.

Ninth, in 2019, at the annual huge gathering of the Shincheonji’s, Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light (HWPL), the former vice-president of the National Assembly (member of the conservative party) made a keynote speech and nine current lawmakers of the conservative part sent congratulatory messages. This event was designed to recruit international members of the Shincheonji.

Tenth, up to now, the conservative party has not criticized the lack of Shincheonji’s cooperation.


The political history of South Korea has been one of deep rooted mistrust and constant existential fight between the conservatives and the non-conservatives.

The conservative political force has ruled Korea 50 years from 1948 to 1998 by Rhee Sygnman and three four-star army generals, Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Rho Tae-wook and Kim Young-sam, the first civil president.

In addition, the conservative party has ruled South Korea 9 years from 2008 to 2017 by Lee Myong-bak and Park Geun-hye.

Thus, the conservative party has ruled South Korea for 59 years under various names.

On the other hand, the progressive force governed South Korea only for 10 years by Kim Dae-jung and Rho Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008. And, since 2017, the government of Moon Jae-in has been in power.

Korea has had seven conservative presidents. Of these seven, Rhee Sygnman was kicked out by students, Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his CIA director, Chun Doo-hwan and Rho Tae-wook served prison terms.

Park Guen-hye is put in prison for 27-years. Lee Myong-bak is condemned for 17-year prison but he is on parole for health reasons.

This leads us to ask the inevitable question of why such dishonourable ends of their presidencies. The answer is this: they are all accused and condemned for corruption, abuse of power and violation of human rights.

When they say that they are “conservative”, we would expect to see that they “conserve something”. But, they don’t to seem be interested in conserving something valuable such as equality, peace, social justice and respect for others.

What they try to conserve seems to be their privileges, power, money and perpetual rule of the country by fear tactics, oppression of the voices of opposition and, especially, the use of the corrupted penal and judiciary system to protect their vested interests.

In this way, the ordinary Koreans have had to endure for 60 years the oppressive rule of the corrupted conservative government.

But, the South Korean people have fought courageously for last 60 years and, finally, in 2016-2017, 17,000,000 people went down the street to impeach Park Geun-hye who was the first woman president, the most incompetent president ever seen in Korea and the most easily manipulated by greedy and immoral people led by Choe Soon-sil who is now in prison.

Since the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, Mooon Jae-in took over the power and declared the total war against the corruption of the conservatives.

This has meant the danger of the very survival of the corruption community of conservatives led by the conservative politicians.

To survive, the conservative party, Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has decided to do everything available to prevent Moon from realizing his dream of eliminating corruption, to save the economy from becoming the victim of deflation through the development of the small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), more equal income distribution and the genuine democracy for all the people, not for the elite alone.

Unfortunately, the party in power, the Democratic Party does not have the majority in the National Assembly so that it had to rely on the cooperation of the LKP to adopt laws and regulation needed to implement of Moon’s policies.

The LKP knowing this weakness of the Moon’s progressive party, it has done every possible trick to prevent the National Assembly from adopting these laws and regulations which were essential for Moon’s policies to be implemented.

The LKP members often used physical violence in the National Assembly Building to prevent the passage of laws designed to improve the welfare of the ordinary people. As a matter of fact, dozens of violent LKP members are now waiting for their court trials.

The general election is scheduled for the 15th of April and all the recent polls have indicated humiliating defeat of the LKP.

In the past, in a similar situation, the conservative party used the North-South tension as the main election campaign theme, and often won the elections. But, now, owing to the Moon’s leadership and diplomacy, there is no more North-South tension useful to the LKP.

Therefore, the conservatives have to find some other means to win the election. But they do not have much; what they might be able do can be summed up into three strategies.

First, they have succeeded in unifying several various conservative forces into one new party, called “mi-rae-tong-hap-dang” (Unified Future Party). But, its synergy effects remain to be seen.

Second, Park Geun-hye in prison sent a message through her lawyer asking all the anti-Moon forces to unite. The true objective of the message is, perhaps, to ask the Shincheonji to help the conservative party at the election.

Third, perhaps the most productive strategy could be the maximum spread of the COVID-19 and use it as the excuse for blaming Moon’s government’s “policy failure” of containing the virus. For this, the conservatives need the cooperation of the Shincheonji.

If this happens, it could be a serious challenge for Moon’s progressive party.

As of March 5, there are about 5,800 known infected persons and about 70% of these are related to the Shincheonji cult sect.

It is quite possible that the members of the cult obstruct Moon’s government anti-virus war in order to help the conservative party.

In fact, there are some events which could suggest the Shincheonji’s plan to hamper the government’s anti-virus war.

First, the Shinchenji refuses to provide the list of its members. The list provided so far is incomplete.

Second, the city of Taegu where the cult’s largest branch is located asked the police to conduct forced search for the list, but it has not been able to so, because the prosecutor has not given the authorization; the prosecutor’s office is a part of the conservative party.

Third, many of Shincheonji members are allowed, possibly by the cult leader, to wonder freely around the country provoking community transmission of virus.

Fourth, during the press conference on March 2, the cult leader, Lee Man-hee did not ask his followers to come out to report to the authorities for the virus test.

Fifth, the members of the Shincheonji seem to be made by the cult leadership to believe that the COVID-19 is the God’s will. Therefore, spreading the virus is not a sin. If this is true, then, we are in deep trouble.

I am not sure of the real impact of such strategy of the Shincheonji on the results of the election.

However, I know one thing. If the progressive party of Moon Jae-in does not win this election with majority, we cannot exclude the possibility of the return to power of the conservative government in two years.

Then, nobody knows what will happen to Korea. It is likely that the money will dictate human mind and soul, the corruption community will prosper, human dignity will be ignored, equality and justice will be crushed and the economy will stagnate.

There is another thing which bothers me. It is the possibility that the Sinchenji can become an agent of global transmission of the virus.

The COVID-19 crisis is no longer the problem of Korea alone. As long as the Shincheonji continues spread the virus, it is no longer the question of community transmission in South Korea but the problem of the global transmission of virus.

Remember this. There are about 32,000 Shincheonji members outside South Korea, about 4,300 in the U.S. alone.

The world needs concerted efforts to make the Shincheonji people to stop playing political games with COVID-19 for the conservative party and cooperate in the global fight against the virus crisis.

To conclude, I would like add a few words about the warm heart of ordinary Koreans shown for the most vulnerable victims of the virus crisis.

There are many voluntary fundraising projects for those families who are the victims. One of the groups who are most severely affected by the virus crisis includes small self-employed service firms and low-income people.

What touched me deeply is the fact that many landlords of apartments, office buildings and restaurants cut rent or exempt rent for the small and marginal businesses and low-income tenants.

We remember that the ordinary Koreans gave, during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, their personal wedding rings and other golden objects to help paying back the IMF debt.

As long as Koreans have courage and warm heart, they will surely overcome the present crisis, as they did before, in other crises, despite the presence of many rotten apples in the society.

Author’s Notes: Most of the data and information used in this paper are from Korean language secondary sources including Namu-wiki, TV programs, news-papers including Kuk-Min-Il-Bo and others.


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Professor Joseph H. Chung is professor of economics and co-director of the Observatoire de l’Asie de l’Est (OAE), the Centre d’Études sur l’Intégration and la Mondialisation (CEIM), Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG).

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