Netflix has continued its strong run in the South Korean television market, broadening its oeuvre from dramas to reality shows (Physical:100 is the latest hit) and hard-hitting documentaries. (See previous coverage, “New Documentary on the ‘Nth Room’ Case.”)
The latest offering from the streaming giant is In the Name of God 나는 신이다, an eight-part series covering four of South Korea’s most notorious cults. Jeong Myeong-seok 정명석, the cult leader covered in the first three episodes, sued to prevent the documentary from airing and lost on March 2, allowing the documentary to air on schedule the next day.
In addition to Jeong, the documentary covers the Odaeyang mass suicide incident 오대양 사건 connected with the Saviorist cult 구원파, the Garden of Babies 아가동산 led by cult leader Kim Gi-sun 김기순, and pastor Lee Jae-rok 이재록 of Manmin Central Church 만민중앙교회. All four cases feature lurid stories of gruesome violence, deaths, pervasive sexual abuse and embezzlement. Jeong raped dozens of women, and went to prison twice for sexual assault. (He was most recently arrested in September 2022 and currently awaits criminal trial.) The 1987 Odaeyang incident led to the deaths of 32 followers, which many still believe to be murders rather than suicides.
But the documentary, produced by MBC and the star journalists behind the TV station’s flagship investigative program PD Note PD수첩, shines because it does not wallow in sensationalism. Rather, it delves into a careful examination of the cult leaders, their enablers, their victims, and the social milieu that gave rise to these cults. It is not a coincidence that all four of the cults gained prominence in the 1980s and 90s, when South Korea’s rapid economic growth was creating a society that was materially wealthier but spiritually untethered.
Although unmentioned in the documentary series, that period’s rise in organized superstition has left a long shadow: South Korea’s last conservative president was impeached and removed from office after handing over her duty of governance to the daughter of a shaman who claimed to speak with her dead mother, and the current president appears in public with the character for “king” on his palm and openly follows the teachings of a bearded mystic who claims to travel interdimensionally. (See previous coverage, “Yoon, Anal Acupuncture and ‘True Law’.”)