The movement’s founder was sentenced to a 10-year prison term. His followers maintained he was innocent, and kept the group alive and growing.
by Massimo Introvigne
An extremely active Christian anti-cult movement in South Korea exports to the international community its criticism of Christian new religious movements born in Korea. Because of its rapid growth, and teachings believed to be “heretical” by South Korea’s mainline churches, Providence quickly became one of its main targets.
Although the main accusations against Providence concern sexual allegations, Providence has also been accused of dissimulation in its proselytization, and of anti-Semitism. The first criticism is commonly directed against many if not most Korean Christian new religions. Like other groups, Providence uses a variety of different names. While they may reflect different organizational models in different countries where the movement is active, there is little doubt that the name “Providence” is often avoided because of its media notoriety after the charges.
As it happens with other Korean movements, this perpetuates a vicious circle. The more Providence is attacked in the media, the more it tends to use other names when first inviting potential converts to its activities, which in turn results in more media criticism against its dissimulation strategies.
In 2016, the Australian edition of the British tabloid Daily Mail reported that, according to one ex-member, Providence is anti-Semitic and the pastors “praise Adolf Hitler in their teachings,” although it also mentioned that a spokesperson for the church firmly denied that this was the case. My perusal of the writings, sermons, and messages of Jung did not find any reference to Hitler.
I did find, however, references to the Jews being punished for the persecution of Jesus and the first Christians, but the punishment came in the shape of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. The theme is still common in Providence, but is a common interpretation in conservative Protestantism of Luke 21:5–6, where Jesus predicts that the Jerusalem Temple will be destroyed.
While thousands of college students are familiar with Providence mostly because of its student clubs and on-campus activities, the public opinion in South Korea and some other countries only knows the movement because of the high-profile trial of President Jung and his sentencing.
After the media campaigns of 1999, Jung left South Korea for his world tour, but his enemies pursued him abroad, and he was also investigated in other countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. An anti-cult organization called Exodus was formed to actively oppose Providence, and it organized press conferences in South Korea and abroad, where masked women appeared and told how they had been molested by Jung.
On May 1, 2007, following a request by South Korean authorities, Jung was arrested in Anshan, China. He had to return to South Korea in February 2008, according to his lawyers after complying voluntarily with a summons by the South Korean authorities rather than as a result of a formal extradition by China.
On August 12, 2008, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Jung to six years in prison on three counts of rape. As usual in South Korea in “cult” cases, he was also sentenced for embezzling money belonging to the movement, although the distinction between the funds of Providence and the private funds of Jung was not easy to establish.
On February 10, 2009, the Seoul High Court overturned the part of the first-degree decision that had recognized Jung not guilty of a fourth count of rape, and sentenced Jung to a total of ten years in prison. On September 24, 2009, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld the Seoul High Court verdict and Jung remained in prison, until February 18, 2018, when he ended serving his term.
There are three irreconcilable narratives about the charges of sexual abuse. The court’s narrative is that four South Korean women were sexually molested by Jung in countries other than South Korea after 1999. The decision did not take a position on whether “sexual initiations” were practiced or not within Providence, but regarded the women as believable, and the context of a “cult” where members were “psychologically manipulated” by the leader reinforced the judges’ opinion.
In fact, the Korean Criminal Act distinguishes between three different crimes, rape (Section 297), sexual assault (Section 298), and “quasi-rape” and “quasi-sexual-assault” (Section 299). The latter section refers to cases where the perpetrator takes advantage of the victim’s “condition of unconsciousness or inability to resist.” In Jung’s case, all victims (which I would designate with letters for the sake of privacy) were Korean women. A and B claimed to have been molested in Hong Kong, C and D in Anshan City, China, and E in Malaysia.
In the case of A and B, Jung was found innocent of rape, as the court did not believe there had been violence or intimidation, but guilty of “sexual assault” in the form of unsolicited “indecent touching,” and of “quasi rape” because, although not physically coerced or threatened, A and B psychologically were “in a state of inability to resist.”
C eventually became a main public voice for the anti-cult association Exodus. D eventually withdrew her accusations, saying she had been coached by C to lie. C was a forceful accuser at trial, and the judges believed her claim that she had been physically raped while taking a shower. The defense argued that C was a martial art champion, and could have easily resisted a short 61-year-old man, but her testimony stood.
In the case of E, the judges of the lower court found Jung innocent of all charges, concluding that from E’s own testimony no violence or threat had emerged. The appeal court, however, reversed the decision and argued that, since E “thought that Jung was Jesus” she was in a status of “inability to resist,” and Jung was found guilty of “quasi-sexual-assault.”
The defense also argued that the accusers had participated in “camps” organized by Exodus, where they had been indoctrinated by the anti-cultists. This was regarded as true but not relevant by the first degree and appellate courts. Indeed, the question whether a woman who believes that her male spiritual leader has a special divine mission is, for this reason, in a condition of “inability to resist” sexual advances by him, has been frequently discussed in “cult” cases.
The positive answer involves the usual accusations of brainwashing and mind control, which would allow the conclusion that a “quasi-sexual-abuse” occurred even in a consensual event, where the consensus was allegedly created through mental manipulation. According to the court, this was the case for A, B, and (in the appellate case) E, while C successfully alleged full-blown rape.
There is a second narrative, common in South Korean and other media, claiming that the four cases for which Jung was sentenced were just the tip of the iceberg, and many other women allegedly went through “initiations” that involved a sexual element. Apart from the legal qualification of what allegedly happened in these initiations as consensual or otherwise, in several cases South Korean courts found these accusations excessive, including when Jung was serving his term in prison.
Providence won lawsuits against different Korean media, as courts allowed details of the trial to be published but still regarded generalizations and allegations about hundreds or thousands of alleged sexual abuse cases as defamatory. They also found that, in some cases, the media had doctored photographs and audio recordings of Jung to make them appear more sinister or incriminating than they in fact were. While Providence did not win all its defamation cases, it did win several of them, and some journalists and media had to publish apologies.
The third narrative, which is passionately believed by members of Providence, is that a cabal of slanderers and anti-cultists created the whole legend of the “sexual initiations,” and that these never happened. According to this narrative, the anti-cultists found some vindictive ex-members and women whose main purpose was to extract money from Jung. This led to the trial and the convictions, which happened in a South Korean cultural climate where somebody branded by the media and the powerful mainline churches as a “cult leader” could not expect to be treated fairly by the judges. President Jung himself has always denied all charges.
Providence also claims that some pictures of female members of Providence in sexy dresses, admittedly not common in Christian movements, published by opponents, derive from the fact that among the ancillary activities they organize there are fashion shows. Opponents also use a video of a Christmas performance in 2003, attended by Jung, where two female members during a dance lifted their costumes, showing nude-color underwear.
Providence answers that the behavior of the girls was jocular but inappropriate, and that the video shows a perplexed rather than an approving Jung. Another video of 2003 shows Jung talking with young women in swimming suits inside a mosquito net near a swimming pool in Hong Kong. Providence insists nothing inappropriate happened, except that opponents illegally entered a private home to film Jung.
Apart from these petty details, outside observers obviously cannot determine which narrative is true, although I may add three general comments. The first is that most, if not all, Korean Christian new religious movements come from a common matrix, the so-called “Jesus Churches,” a cluster of Christian Korean new religious movements including the Holy Lord Church, the “Inside Belly Church” (Bokjunggyo), the Israel Monastery, and the Wilderness Church. These movements became notorious for their practice of p’ikareun, a “blood exchange” between the leader and the followers involving, at least in some cases, sexual intercourse.
Both Reverend Moon of the Unification Church and Elder Park Tae Son, the founder of the Olive Tree movement, which is at the origin of a whole lineage of Korean Christian new religions, had contacts with the Jesus Churches, and were accused of practicing p’ikareun. What was practiced, or not practiced, in each movement is a matter of controversy, but because of these precedents it became a matter of course for Korean anti-cultists and mainline churches to accuse all “heretic” movements of performing “sexual initiations.”
Second, Providence’s membership consists mostly of college students. There is a majority of female students, although a good 40% consists of males. The women are undistinguishable in their dressing style from the average college student in their respective countries, a style that is far away from the conservative habits of most mainline South Korean Protestant churches. What would be regarded as normal in a college party may easily appear as scandalous to conservative South Korean Protestants.
Third, Providence teaches that there is a relation between internal (spiritual) beauty and external beauty. Although spiritual beauty, not easily visible to human eyes, is more important, external beauty is a metaphor and a symbol of internal beauty. Accordingly, in the visual and performing arts of Providence there is no trace of a puritanical restraint about the human body, and fashion, both traditional Korean and modern-Westernized, is regarded as a valid form of art and culture. While these elements may help in understanding the context, the conflict between Providence members’ firm belief in their founder’s innocence and the different narrative emerging from court decisions and prevailing in most Korean media remains unreconcilable.