South Korea has more than its fair share of shadowy religious cults, but Jesus Morning Star (JSM), ranks among its more notorious. The sect claims to be a benign religious group that follows the Bible. But former members have described the leader, Jeong Myeong-seok, as a self-proclaimed messiah who used claims of divine authority to groom young women. Tellingly, Jeong is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for the rape and sexual assault of five women across several Asian countries.
Canberra native Peter Daley is a lecturer in South Korea and he's spent the past 13 years tracking the movements of JSM and several other sects at his website jsmcult.com. In 2014, Peter was interviewed by SBS' The Feed in a report on how JSM targets university women in Australia to become Jeong's "spiritual brides."
Unsurprisingly, Peter's unconventional hobby hasn't endeared him to cult members. Recently, several female members tried to have him prosecuted for defamation, which is a criminal offence in South Korea. Peter had posted video footage of them nakedly praising Jeong on his website, even though the footage was heavily pixelated and already available in the public domain. After a seven-month investigation by police and prosecutors, Peter was cleared of all charges last month.
We asked Peter about his legal travails, how he became the foremost Western expert on Korean cults, and what JSM is up to in Australia.
VICE: Hi Peter, how did you first get into tracking South Korean cults?
Peter Daley: I moved to Korea in 2003 and took a job teaching English in a rural town in the mountains. A few months later I discovered it was the closest town to the base of this cult known as JMS. My roommate was a member but when she decided to leave, the group threatened her. They told her God would kill someone in her family and members started following her around town. They were waiting for her at the swimming pool she would swim at twice a week.
There wasn't much information in English at the time and I became quite fascinated by the organisation—how it operated, how it indoctrinated people. As there wasn't much information in English I started a site. As that was in 2003 it's been growing since then.
Tell us more about what this cult.
The videos, I think, provide a really clear window into how they indoctrinate young women, if they're beautiful enough. The videos show naked university students together—there are about four or five of them in one video—naked and dancing around saying "Seonsaengnim, we love you!" Seonsaengnim is the word for teacher. There's another video showing a woman licking a photo of the leader and then she holds it up to her vagina. So this is a clear indication that sex has a pretty key role in the deeper levels of the cult.
What can you tell us about JSM in Australia?
It's pretty small, but they do have presences in the major cities. The SBS report interviewed two girls who were recruited around the Australian National University campus. At the moment, their main branch is in Melbourne and there has been recruitment at the University of Melbourne. Their goal is to pretty much target tall attractive women, and they rationalise this by telling their members that outward appearance is a sign of inward beauty and a sign that God has chosen them to become part of this.
Yes, that's creepy. So how did you come to be sued by the cult?
I think the cult saw me as more of a threat following the SBS report. Between 2014 and last August, I'd get these intermediate threats. Then in August 2015, I got a call from police telling me I was being sued by several members. I was given a document to sign from JMS saying they'd drop the charges if I apologised, closed my website, and never spoke about them again. I just refused immediately. I didn't even have to think about it really, it was just an automatic no.
Were you scared to turn them down?
I wouldn't say I was scared, but it weighed heavily on me. Members have committed violence against reporters and critics in the past, so that is always a possibility. I was certainly nervous going to the first police interview, but once it began I relished the opportunity to share my experiences with Korean authorities.
So what happened?
The police recommended to prosecutors that the case be dropped. I just received a brief summary of the prosecutor's decision, but I am getting an English translation of the seven-page document soon. Essentially it was ruled that the public interest factor outweighed concerns about sexual content.
So what did you learn from this experience?
I learned that my site is having a far greater effect that I could have dreamed of. The fact they went to so much effort to silence me, I think, speaks volumes.
Do you plan to continue this work?
Yes, absolutely. First, I find the topic endlessly fascinating and second, I know my efforts have helped people and, to some extent, hindered the activities of what are essentially criminal organisations. That's a good feeling.