Firsthand: Korean cult in recent Netflix exposé has S’pore affiliate in Ubi

The Singapore church has been operating here for over 20 years.

Nigel Chua | October 02, 2023, 03:40 PM

Firsthand is a new content pillar by Mothership, featuring in-depth articles and videos about people in Singapore and their stories.

We'll explore issues that matter by experiencing them for ourselves, gather expert opinions, and hear the perspectives of young Singaporeans, to present the points of view that matter, firsthand.

Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual grooming and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

“When I received the letter, I was so overjoyed and I feel even more closer to you now, though I was a little surprised initially because I never knew we could be this intimate. keke~”

This was a line from a letter, purportedly sent in reply to embattled cult leader Jung Myung Seok from a church member in Singapore.

The writer goes on to describe how she wants to “take sexier and awesome pictures on the beach with thread-like bikini only for your eyes to see.”

The use of intimate language in letters between Jung and the young women he favours is reportedly a common practice in the Korean cult known as “Providence” or “Christian Gospel Mission” (CGM), according to ex-members who have come forward to share their stories.

Providence was founded by Jung in South Korea in the 1980s and has spread all over the world. According to the CGM website, there are around 100 churches outside of Korea, with over 10,000 attendees.

The website mentions churches in “the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa, Japan, Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, Hong Kong, and other nations” — but not Singapore.

However, a digital copy of the letter mentioned above is just one of many documents seen by Mothership that point to the existence of an organisation in Singapore that is aligned with the broader religious movement — in matters of doctrine, and practice as well.

At some point in July 2023, the Singapore organisation, which calls itself Great Glory Church (GGC), made its affiliation with Providence public, updating its website to say that it is “doctrinally affiliated to Christian Gospel Mission (Providence)”.

This came after Mothership began trying to contact GGC and Singapore companies connected to it since early July 2023.

Mothership spoke to ex-members and looked into the evidence they provided — including hours worth of online services recorded during the Covid years, text messages sent to church members, web pages, letters, and other documents.

These ex-members say that elements of some questionable practices by Providence had been adopted in GGC, including the practice of intimate letter-writing between Jung and certain members.

When contacted by Mothership, the church largely denied these allegations, saying their affiliation is “doctrinal” and does not extend to the adoption of specific practices the ex-members spoke about.

Excerpts from the ex-members’ evidence, and the church’s responses in detail, are included in this article.

The cult

The first three episodes of an eight-part Netflix series, “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal”, puts the spotlight on the cult group Providence, interviewing ex-members on the alleged misdeeds of its founder Jung Myung Seok, and on church members’ involvement in gratifying his perversions.

The episodes contain harrowing tales of sexual grooming and sexual assault by Jung, and young women describe being convinced that they should send him photos and videos of themselves in the nude, or in revealing clothing such as lingerie and bikinis. Such claims are further substantiated by ex-members who appeared in an Australian documentary as well.

One of the documentary’s scenes features a recording of a besotted female follower speaking to someone (presumably Jung) on the phone. He talks about her being “prettier in person” and how his act of giving her underwear as a gift meant that “we’re already like lovers”.

In the documentary, ex-members explain that all this happened because they were manipulated and indoctrinated by the group, with one of the key teachings being that Jung was the messiah (a term often used by Christians to refer to Jesus) and that they should follow his instructions.

Understandably, Providence took legal action in Korea to prevent the documentary from being screened. But the courts ruled in favour of Netflix, and the impact of the documentary has extended beyond South Korea — including in Singapore.

As one of GGC’s ex-members shared:

“When I heard about the Netflix docu-series in the making, [I thought to myself], Netflix cannot be creating something out of nothing, right?”

Doubts she had already been harbouring for some time began to crystallise, and soon after the documentary’s release, she reached out to Mothership to share her story, on condition of anonymity.

The ex-member said she was not coming forward with the aim of stopping people from joining Providence or GGC.

Rather, she hoped that going public with her story would allow people to make informed decisions about whether or not to get involved with the group.

“There will always be people who are convinced [of Providence’s teachings],” she said. “But I don’t feel I can move on without letting the public know about this,” the ex-member explained.

Looking into the Singapore affiliate

Mothership began inquiring of GGC’s affiliation with Providence in early July 2023.

When we contacted the church then, its relationship to Providence had not yet been made public on the church’s website.

However, there were some clues pointing to the connection.

First of all, there was the church’s curious Instagram bio, which reads: “We rest in God's providence.”

Screenshot via GGC on Instagram.

But there were also less subtle indications.

For example, various material on GGC’s website pointed to an influential figure held in high regard among church members, echoing the way Providence members view Jung Myung Seok.

There was the mention of a “mentor” on the website of Kindred Community, the church’s community service arm.

Screenshot via Kindred Community website.

It was initially difficult to confirm who exactly this “mentor” was, however.

A Kindred Community representative contacted by Mothership in July 2023 confirmed the organisation’s affiliation to GGC.

We wanted to know whether this "mentor" referred to Jung Myung Seok, and if so, how Jung had provided mentorship to them. However, the representative did not respond to our question about it.

There were other veiled references to a significant figure. A 2021 sermon uploaded to GGC’s website (which has since been removed) also mentions “our Bible Teacher” as well as “the preacher”.

Screenshot from GGC's website.

The sermon itself goes on to say that the “Bible Teacher” took over 60 years to “learn from God” and is now in his 70s. (Jung Myung Seok, born in 1945, is 78 this year.)

Screenshots via YouTube.

GGC confirmed to Mothership that these references to a “bible teacher” did indeed refer to Jung.

The church also confirmed that “the formation of Kindred Community was inspired by Pastor Jung”, but said Kindred is “in no way legally, structurally, or financially linked” to Jung.

Either way, Jung had certainly been a central figure in the experience of the ex-members who spoke to Mothership.

Jung Myung Seok a significant figure for Great Glory Church

Jung was referred to as “bible teacher” and “mentor”, and also as “SSN” — which Mothership understands to be an abbreviation of “seonsaengnim” (선생님, meaning “teacher” in Korean).

“SSN” is an acronym used frequently in GGC’s communications to members.

Screenshot from a livestreamed Great Glory Church service with a direction to “pray for SSN”.

GGC confirmed this, saying that “SSN” does indeed refer to Jung, and said it was a “respectful salutation” in Korean used to refer to “professionals and respected persons”.

“GGC respects him as a religious teacher as he is the founder and teacher of CGM’s doctrine, which GGC has adopted,” said the church.

Jung is clearly held in high regard by GGC, notwithstanding the fact that he has been a controversial figure for some time, even before the Netflix series.

A July 2021 sermon that was broadcast live from GGC’s premises explains that for church members to "become the brides of God", there is a need for "the first person" who has reached "the level of counterpart before God".

"Everyone, who is that person?" asks the preacher, pausing, then laughing. "We all know, right? That’s why we’re here. Yes — that’s our Bible teacher.”

“SSN become the absolute counterpart of love to God,” explain the slides that accompany a Great Glory Church online sermon dated July 2021.

Responding to the suggestion that the sermon referred to the Bible teacher (i.e. Jung) as being comparable in status to Moses and other key figures in Christianity, GGC said it was inaccurate to describe the sermon as such.

“Just because they are mentioned in the same sentence does not mean they have the same status,” the church said.

The church said that it is inaccurate to say that members are “frequently directed” to pray for Jung, as they are only “occasionally” encouraged to do so.

They noted that it is common for religions to pray for the religious leaders whom they are affiliated to.

Jung’s status

Some of the serious accusations against Jung include claims that he abused his power and influence in Providence to sexually assault young women.

Jung was in fact convicted of sexual assault charges in 2008 (which Providence denies, saying the conviction was not supported by proper evidence). He was eventually imprisoned for 10 years after a period spent on the run.

Released in 2018, he was arrested again in October 2022 to face new sexual assault charges, and legal proceedings against him are ongoing in Korea.

While in prison, Jung reportedly exchanged letters with followers, and reportedly requested that they enclose photos of themselves in bikinis.

Since GGC in Singapore started in 1996 (according to its website), could Singapore followers have been in touch with Jung, whether in person or through letters?

Ex-GGC members say that many from GGC have met Jung either in person or virtually, but there are no claims of sexual assault by Jung or any other persons in GGC.

There have been reports from overseas that young women in Providence churches were identified as “spiritual brides” for Jung. One young woman recounted how she was led to believe that Jung’s imprisonment for sexual assault was actually because he was “saving all of mankind’s souls”.

Speaking to The Daily Mail, the Australian ex-member felt, in hindsight, that she was “absolutely being groomed” to be assaulted by Jung.

GGC told Mothership that it “has been fully transparent with its members that Pastor Jung has a previous conviction and is presently going through a court trial.”

It added:

“GGC does not take any official position on these matters as GGC is independent from CGM Korea and Pastor Jung, and is not in a position to speak on his behalf.

Individual members are entitled to their own opinions on these issues.”

We asked GGC how members are encouraged to view Jung, and about the practice of identifying “spiritual brides”. It said:

“GGC teaches and believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Pastor Jung Myung Seok is not God and not Jesus. He is fully human, like us. GGC teaches members to focus their faith in God, and not on man.

We also do not condone any form of abuse or sexual harassment, and we have instituted an anti-abuse and sexual harassment policy which can be found on our website (see here).”

However, according to the ex-members, letter-writing was a questionable practice that did take place in GGC, although the church denies involvement.

Letters to “SSN”

Ex-members say Jung was often the recipient of letters from certain church members.

These church members were singled out and given the title of “Faith Star”, which conferred special status, including the privilege of being able to hear back from Jung every once in a while.

The handpicked members — typically young women of above-average height — would frequently write to “Ssn” (i.e. Jung), providing updates on their lives and seeking his advice.

This practice of according special status to “Faith Stars” matches the experience shared by members of other Providence churches, such as in Australia.

Digital copies of a number of these letters from Singapore were shown to Mothership by an ex-member. All of them were addressed to “Ssn”.

The ex-member had received the files from a church leader, and believes that the leader had unwittingly transferred them over by mistake.

While the contents aroused her suspicion at the time, the ex-member said she thought: “Maybe if I stay, I will understand why they do this.”

A folder, simply named “Stars”, contained six sub-folders with the names of the letter-writers. There were over 150 files.

A screenshot showing the 154 items in the folder. The ".hwp" format refers to Hangul Word Processor, and is used extensively in South Korea.

The letters all follow a prescribed format, introducing the name of the writer, their age, their height in cm, and occupation. Each one also contains a photo of the writer.

A number of the letters also contained photos of the writers in different outfits, including photos featuring them wearing bikinis, taken on the beach in Sentosa.

In a separate folder named “Signs”, there were also copies of these photos that had apparently been printed out, signed, and scanned.

Some of the letters to Jung also thanked him for his “signs” — presumably referring to his signature on their photos, which presumably served to show that he had seen them.

What other content was covered in the letters?

The letters seen by Mothership covered a range of topics.

There were often birthday or new year greetings to Jung, and routine updates about what the writer was doing in church or at work recently.

Some letters also sought Jung’s approval for decisions such as going overseas for studies, or matters relating to their personal health.

Other, more personal letters discussed matters of a more intimate nature, with some members confessing romantic feelings for Jung and describing their desire to be with him — such as the letter mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Screenshots from a digital copy of a letter addressed to Jung Myung Seok, seen by Mothership.

The files shared with Mothership also contained what appeared to be replies from Jung, written in Korean with English translations.

For example, one letter, addressed to the writer who had sought advice on whether to go to Korea to study, said, “I received your letter of April 12th. If you wish to study (in korea), do it. Learn diligently.”

What was GGC’s involvement in letter-writing?

GGC, responding to Mothership, appeared to acknowledge the practice of letter writing, saying that members “are able to communicate with pastors of other CGM churches” and that “this is done purely at the members’ own volition and request”.

When asked whether GGC encourages or facilitates communication of an intimate nature between its members and Jung, the church denied knowledge of such letters.

It said it “does not interfere in the private and confidential letters of its members” and added that it neither translates nor relays the letters on members’ behalf.

We also asked the church about whether members are guided in any way in how they communicate with CGM pastors including Jung. They said the church “has not formulated any guidelines for such communications as GGC is not involved in them”.

However, a “1st Step” guide apparently given to new converts lists “once a month” letter writing as one of the practices to commit to.

“Letter-writing is not skill. It’s shimjeong” Photo provided by ex-member.

The letters are meant to be sent to a certain “R”.

“R” stands for “rabbi or teacher”, according to GGC’s website.

Screenshot from Great Glory Church’s website.

Asked about this specific mention of “R”, Great Glory Church said simply that it “refers to Jesus”.

Church leader’s input appended to members’ letters

But there was also more evidence that pointed to the church’s involvement in letter writing to Jung: the direct involvement of a church leader who would often append her inputs to members’ letters.

A letter from a member, with further inputs from a church leader appended on the last two pages.

The church leader providing a further update about a particular 20-year-old “Singapore Star”.

Asked about this, GGC said it was not aware of the practice by the leader, and claimed to have “never seen the letters in question”.

The church leader was listed as being part of the leadership team on the GGC website in early 2023, but her profile no longer appears on the page.

GGC explained that this is because she has “stepped down from her leadership role to pave the way for new leaders” and said it was a move that had been planned for several years.

Regarding the letters, GGC said:

“Their authenticity cannot be confirmed unless a copy of those letters is provided for verification. As such, if those letters are genuine (which cannot be confirmed as GGC has not seen any of these at all), the assumption is that they must have been stolen from her.”

GGC also said the leader concerned is “obtaining legal advice” and would be taking “necessary action”.

How did we get here?

There is definitely some truth in Great Glory Church’s statement that communication between members and Jung happens “at the members’ own volition and request.”

One ex-member explained how it was possible for members to be convinced to join the church, and to embrace the church’s unconventional norms — even to the extent of writing letters to Jung that contained sensitive personal information, and consulting him on major life decisions.

“For me, I needed people to be around me. I had self-esteem issues, I had self-image issues. I wanted acceptance.

I also needed friends, I needed my own tribe, my own people. And sometimes people struggle with identity also. So I see that in myself in the past also, and I see it in the people around me also.”

She shared that she was going through a major life transition at the point she was introduced to GGC — trying to apply to university.

The support from members who introduced her to the church was critical throughout that difficult application period.

She was also assigned a “buddy” who would pray with her over the phone each day.

“I was so convinced and I felt so blessed, because after I had the Bible lessons I started writing to sunsaengnim and I told him about my uni application.

Even though I never had any responses from him, I managed to get into (name of university) with my stupid, average (tertiary qualification) grades, so I thought this was really God's will.” (details redacted to protect ex-member’s identity)

From then, she was taught to look out for signs from God. “They’d teach us to look at nature revelations. They made us look at the shape of the trees, the shape of the clouds.”

“People who depend a lot on God, everything that happens in their life, they correlate it to faith,” she explained.

Needless to say, she takes a different perspective nowadays.

“If you think ‘I got very lucky today,’ you can say that it is God's blessing. You can see it as that, but it can also be just coincidence.”

She found herself being progressively more and more involved, to the point that she began to get cut off from friends and family members who were not in the church.

She acknowledges that being a member of the church met a lot of emotional needs.

“There are still a lot of churches that are not cults, but they provide that also,” she quickly added.

“So I hope that the people who are inside — not because they truly believe ‘the word’, but because they need all this social support — they can start to realise that there are other churches that can support them.”

Moving on from the cult

After leaving the cult, the ex-member confided in colleagues at work, who then recommended she see a counsellor.

She was eventually diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and says life is better for her after having left the church.

She’s also reported the matter to the authorities. Mothership received confirmation from SPF that a police report has been made, and that the police are “looking into the matter”.

“My whole life, I don’t have any dreams or purpose except to serve God,” said the ex-member, looking back on her years in GGC.

Now, she’s been able to engage in hobbies she previously had to put aside to be able to attend multiple church services and engagements each week.

“And now, through therapy and everything, I realised that I'm learning to change my perspective and not see it as so, ‘Oh my God! This is Satan, [this is] God's war’, that kind of stuff. I think I can take it easy. “

She’s made new friends, and is exploring new experiences.

“They brought me to go clubbing, they brought me to the bar. Then [I realised], eh? Actually it’s not so satanic. It’s actually quite okay. Just drink, and then just have fun.”

The ex-member said she still believes in God — though she no longer feels she can commit to any church or group.

She’s wary that she could once again end up in a situation where she would “just blindly follow or support what the church says.”

“So I just distance myself and find my own way to hang on to God,” she said.

She remembers being warned by a church member once that life outside the church would be “like a wild land, nobody will help you.”

Her experience of leaving has been different from described, however.

“But there are a lot of people who can help. And eventually, I hope [church members thinking of leaving] will realise that their needs, their wants, their life desires, they can still be successful, even if they get out.”

“But it takes a lot of courage to take the first step,” she said.

Top image courtesy of ex-member and by Nigel Chua

Have an interesting or unconventional journey to share? Email us at [email protected].