This week, Korea plays host to a major world peace summit which will be chaired by a “renowned Korean peace activist.” But if you’re in Korea, you won’t be hearing much about it in the news.
Why? Because that big-name activist is none other than Lee Man-hee, leader of Shinchonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), which is known as one of the country’s most controversial religious groups.
From Sept. 17 to 19, the World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit (or WARP Summit, not to be mistaken for the UN-affiliated NGO Religions for Peace which held an interfaith conference in Songdo, Incheon last month) will bring together world leaders, major religious figures, and political activists, all in the name of peace.
Or at least that’s what they’re told. The event is officially hosted by Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL), the International Women’s Peace Group (IWPG), the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG), and the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD), three of which are allegedly controlled by SCJ’s leadership.
And the odd one out, the Berlin-based ICD, pulled their affiliation from HWPL and the WARP Summit on Tuesday, just one day before its opening day (Korea time).
Now, as the countdown to what one SCJ Facebook group called “the biggest peace-event the world has seen” reaches its end, more and more participants are getting cold feet and bailing out on their intercontinental flights.
“We didn’t know the chairman of the peace summit is accused of being a cult leader who claims to be immortal,” a Muslim participant of the event told The Korea Observer upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport Tuesday.
MBC’s PD Notebook, an investigative program, claimed that SCJ makes its followers believe Lee is immortal. Lee, however, didn’t admit it, saying this is a matter that the God should decide, not him.
Meanwhile, another Muslim participant claimed that he was disappointed that the organizers because he would no longer be able to give a speech for one of the debate sessions.
“I was initially invited as a panelist, but the organizers later told me that they simply have too many panel members and cannot give me a slot to make a short presentation,” he said. “I will only participate as an observer.”
Yet still more were arriving by the hour, greeted at the by white-shirted SCJ members cheering and waving welcoming signs.
“I took an early leave to come here to greet religious leaders,” one high school volunteer said asking for anonymity. “We are here for world peace.”
They claim to have successfully invited former heads of state of Romania, Croatia, Kosovo, Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, Mongolia, South Africa, Jordan, Argentina, Armenia, and Albania. They also claim to have the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
They even invited former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin publicly online through Twitter. And they posted a video congratulatory message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was quickly taken offline shortly after.
“Without fail, every leader we have spoken with has pledged themselves in support of our cause, demonstrating their desire to be a part of HWPL’s work through a signed agreement of solidarity,” Lee says in his greetings message on the organizers’ official website.
For many foreign residents who have been in Korea for over two years, this is all too familiar. In 2012, SCJ ran an aggressive recruiting campaign targeting foreigners under the front group Mannam Volunteer Association. Through Mannam, they organised numerous activities, from sports teams and a running club to a photography group and charity events.
They pulled in thousands of foreigners, but once word got out of SCJ’s role, participation was decimated. Still, they managed to bring in thousands of unaware foreigners to a large event filling Jamsil Olympic Stadium past capacity on Sept. 16, 2012.
The event was advertised in English as the World Peace Festival, but to Koreans it was the SCJ 6th National Olympiad, an event held every four years to coincide with Lee Man-hee’s birthday on Sept. 15. The fallout from this “large-scale deception” was fierce, filling the expat blogosphere with condemnations and first-hand accounts.
Following that, Mannam went silent. Burned in Korea, they focused their efforts abroad. Under a bevy of new banners, they went abroad to meet with world leaders and engage in diplomacy. They signed an interfaith peace agreement on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Lee Man-hee was appointed honorary ambassador of the International Romani Union National Assembly. He spread the legend of Lee Man-hee, 83-year-old peace activist, divorced from his infamy as a cult leader at home.
So now, many of the friends that have been made overseas are coming to Korea, where they may be exposed to a very different narrative of Lee and SCJ’s place in Korean society. At this year’s WARP Summit, once again taking place in the same week as Lee Man-hee’s birthday, internal memos went out instructing SCJ participants not to mention SCJ or Mannam.
Outside of a few organized protests by family members of SCJ followers, most people in Korea are unaware that the WARP Summit is happening. There is a media blackout on all things SCJ, which the church used to its advantage. As well, it blocked out its own websites for HWPL, IPYG, and IWPG in Korea to limit the information available, only lifting the block at the commencement of the summit.
The Korea Observer tried but was unable reach the WARP Summit for official comments over the past two days. Nevertheless, despite obvious connections, several volunteers of the summit denied any involvement with Shinchonji.