Slouching Toward Shinchonji

Shinchonji National Olympiad/World Peace Festival

So, how was your weekend? I went to a breathtakingly grand event at Olympic Stadium which, depending on which side you entered or how you were invited, was either the Shinchonji National Olympiad or the World Peace Festival.

For the last several months, Mannam recruiters have been out wherever foreigners congregate, handing out pamphlets about Mannam's many activities and teasers of an upcoming World Peace event on September 16 that would break a world record. I was approached at the World Cup Stadium GS25 while my parents were visiting, and while I wasn't interested in expanding my social commitments, I saw the opportunity for a good news article for work. My first article about Mannam talked about affordable Korean-language classes, placing Mannam side-by-side with the Korean Cultural Centers and numerous migrant workers' centers. I had no problem giving the Mannam recruiter my contact info and receiving occasional event invitations; in the quest for fresh article ideas that belong on a government news website, I need to cast a wide net.

Anyway, months later I started hearing that Mannam had ties with a Korean church outside the mainstream, Shinchonji. Evidence has been offered here and there, from first-hand accounts to analysis of their symbolism and practices, not to mention the presence of Shinchonji higher-ups in the upper echelons of Mannam, not the least of which is Lee Man-hee, leader of Shinchonji and honorary chairman of Mannam. This was not a hidden fact, but recruiters weren't up-front about it, and it wasn't long before a lot of the original pages supporting the link were made to disappear.

I looked into it a bit, and was surprised to find how many of my friends had also been contacted by them. This group had reached a surprisingly large portion of the expat population, which is actually quite an achievement I can't imagine has been duplicated by anyone other than...immigration?

Anyway, fast-forward to the record-breaking event on the 16th. Some online sources originally had it billed as the International Day of Mannam and/or 1st Mannam World Peace Race, or increasingly as the World Peace Initiative, but some sources advertised the sixth quadrennial Shinchonji National Olympiad. To be honest, I wasn't taking much interest until I saw what that last one was. Mass games! Large-scale card stunts, like the Arirang Festival in North Korea, only this one was in South Korea! Oh yes, now I totally wanted to go.

I'm not really moved by the religious content (no more than I would be from its North Korean counterpart), but I find the logistics of planning and executing such events infinitely fascinating, not to mention aesthetically stimulating.

My Korean coworkers and friends are terrified of Shinchonji, but I thought it would be a positive service to them to show what really goes on at an event like this.

But would I be allowed in, despite not being a member or a believer? Sure, why not? The recruiters were handing out free tickets to foreigners by the spool. I decided that the best way to go would be to attend with my friends from the blogging and publishing community so we could maintain our own subgroup cohesion, rather than doing something stupid like attempting to infiltrate a Mannam group.

Mannam released a statement and apology a couple weeks before the event acknowledging its collusion with Shinchonji but maintaining that they are still two independent organisations. Still, Mannam continued to recruit more and more foreigners into coming without adding on this bit of information. They even deceived the Ministry of Unification, which I'm told pulled out two days before the event, once they discovered that the World Peace Festival they'd agreed to sponsor was connected with Shinchonji.

Sunday came, and over the next day videos started appearing on YouTube of the Shinchonji performances, mislabeling them as Mannam or World Peace Festival despite their clear religious messages. I think it's best to point out on Mannam's behalf that these performances were part of the religious Shinchonji portion of the show, and I hope Mannam comes forward and clarifies to its members which parts of the program were Mannam and which parts were Shinchonji. By Tuesday, blog posts started going up, presumably as soon as the writers had recovered their thoughts and were able to think clearly again.

The response to the Olympiad has broken into two camps:
1) foreigners who attended expecting to be part of a World Peace Festival, and feel shocked, betrayed, and disgusted at being deceived into taking part in a religious event
2) Mannam/Shinchonji members who insist that Mannam and Shinchonji have maintained an acceptable distance throughout the event

I occupy a rare third position, having done my research before joining the festivities. So we went, and you can see my pictures here. I was made to feel uncomfortable while there, and I even thought about not posting these pictures for fear of ruffling Shinchonji's feathers. However, having seen the widespread foreign response to being invited under false pretenses, I don't think I'm saying anything unprecedented or risque.

This is in no way intended to disparage their religious beliefs; everyone has the right to worship (or not worship) however they see fit, and if they want to put on a great mass performance like this every so often, I say go for it, because it was spectacular.

On the other hand, it's disingenuous how Mannam lured foreigners there, so it needs to be shown that the two groups are closely linked. Not because I want to prevent people from participating in either or both groups, but because everyone should make a practice of knowing what they're getting involved with. Plus, don't we owe Shinchonji a bit of recognition for this massive undertaking they've accomplished?

As I told Mannam when I was interviewed on camera, we don't get many opportunities to see an event like this, at least without having to go to North Korea or some other place. But the chance to witness such a performance in South Korea, where we have the right to mobility freedom of speech without fear of safety, that was impossible to turn down.

Well, I'm glad I went. Whether or not you agree with the message, it was a spectacular performance told in an overpowering medium (tens of thousands of colour-coded human-sized pixels). If you're looking for a genuinely unique spectacle, you couldn't do better than Mannam and Shinchonji. Granted, they have a lot to learn about PR. If you are considering getting involved with Mannam (or for that matter, any charity group), I encourage you to do some research first so you can make an informed decision.

On approach to the stadium, the road was lined with Shinchonji members in colour-coded jumpsuits. I could tell the workers directing traffic felt out of place.

Of course, Mannam volunteers were everywhere.

After being exposed to the relatively safe environment of the press conference on Friday, I decided the best way in would be to go to the press section. We asked many guides along the way which way to go, and they directed us straight in, without even having to register at a press booth or get a press pass. Odd, because I'd heard on Friday that we would be required to have press passes.

All around the outskirts of the stadium, large numbers of people were moving, preparing for their respective grand entrances.

This led to long, thin lineups of various group. Here's a group of Mannam foreigners photographing a moving flag parade. I really like this effect.

Inside, we found that all the Shinchonji members were already in their seats.

The steadium terraces were lined with these colour-coded banners explaining the names of the Twelve Tribes of Shinchonji.

Don't worry, translations are offered.

I have never seen a stadium so packed. Yet, the volume was still lower than an FC Seoul game. These gates are where Lee Man-hee and Kim Nam-hee would enter soon.

I can't quite read the second word, but it seems to say "truth of ____ beautiful Shinchonji."

The announcers were set up in front of us, with the cameras directly on the opposite side of them, so that whenever they were on the jumbotron, you could see us in the press section behind them. There was a second sest of announcers, also with Mannam foreigners in the background, which seemed a better choice than us reporters.

That's me taking a picture of myself in the lower left corner of the jumbotron.

Lee Man-hee was just one section over from us, in the VIP section. When he lit the Olympic flame, there was quite a foom, and I could feel the heat from my section.

For the first part of the opening ceremonies, we were treated to a variety of parade processions. I believe this must be the leaders of the Twelve Tribes, who will take their places on the field for the others to follow.

It's strange seeing this empty patch of grass now, as the rest of the event the field was packed full.

The card section showed us a few images to get started.

Sixth World Peace - Restoring of Light Heaven Culture Festival.

Or in English:

A beautiful Shinchonji spread.

Meanwhile, the other Shinchonji sections weren't sitting still themselves. Many sections used used bicoloured pompoms to create this colour-shimmering effect that a still image couldn't duplicate; I think you can see this in mid-motion on the right. THere was also the pulsing yellow Shinchonji salute in the violet section.

There was a parade of the Twelve Tribes entering, accompanied by the card section listing their names.

And here, you can see them mid-card. This capture was extremely lucky timing, and gives you a vague sense of what we're seeing.

Unfortunately from my position they were a bit out of sync; the Tribe of Thaddeus must be coming through the gates right now.

I checked, and apparently "James" in Korean is closer to "Yacobo." Must have something to do with the original Hebrew.

Here comes Thomas! Yes, I took a picture of every card formation, out of sheer appreciation.

And then here's Seoul James. Must be a popular name.

Looks like I'm back on camera again!

Now here come the Mannam volunteers. There were two groups this size, with many more sitting in the stands on my side of the stadium.

The flag parade.

The paraders all got a front-row seat for the card performance, which depicted the fortress of Babylon being destroyed by a dragon. You can see Mannam got the center spot.

The entire Shinchonji side participated in producing massive waves, far more wavelike than any stadium waves I've seen before.

To signify the destruction of Babylon, the card holders each individually let off some kind of sparkler or flare or something. Definitely the highlight of the show. You might also notice they've covered up the exits with colour-appropriate blankets. Quite impressive. Bottom half: Shinchonji.

Next time on the jumbotron, I got my tiger shirt out.

We were on camera often, but actually not nearly as often as at the Friday press conference.

Alpha and Omega.

Afterwards, there were speeches which lasted longer than I think they were scheduled. First, Lee Man-hee. I also remember Kim Nam-hee speaking. Then, speeches by Assefa Kessito Dash (chief of staff and Special Advisor to the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia), Commissioner Joycie Dorado Alegre of the National Commission for Culture and Arts of the Republic of the Philippines, and Deputy Minister Constancio da Conceicao Pinto for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (source). There was also another more dramatic Korean preacher who had a lot of fire and brimstone in his voice.

Now here's the Mannam logo, with the original Korean slogan "When light and light meet comes victory."

These must be the flags of all countries represented in Mannam and Shinchonji.

I went out for a washroom break, and couldn't resist taking this picture of Kim Swoo-geun's creation.

The washroom situation was dire. The line for the women's was neverending, while the men filed in and out. When I entered, I was surprised to see that they all entered into the same room. While men mostly stuck to the two banks of urinals, there was one squatter designated for us. Meanwhile, the women were coming directly in from a separate door, where they had to wait their turn for two stalls.

So, Kim Swoo-geun, consider me disillusioned.

Coming back in, I stopped to take this picture below. Immediately I was roughly grabbed by two guards, and a third grabbed my camera. I wrestled it back (although this probably explains why the lens spontaneously popped out later on).

They told me only staff was allowed in here, despite the fact we'd already been allowed in, they'd let me out when I went to use the washroom, and just seconds prior to this picture they'd allowed me back in.

They wanted to kick me out, so I got one of my friends to bring my camera bag and jacket, and then they backed off.

At this point, I'm not so sure what's happening.

The unveiling of the World Peace Monument, which set off a sharp crack which I assume was caused by a sudden expansion of dry ice.

Then a helicopter flew overhead.

I'd been expecting some sort of parachuting performance on the schedule, but it never came.

Although I did my best not to photograph people within the stands in a way that they can be recognised (we were told as journalists we could only photograph people in the stadium if we had their express permission), I did shoot this photo op. Here they're making the Shinchonji salute.

A couple more, showing the fireworks going off in the background.

Next was the shower of streamers, which left quite a big mess on the field.

Then the field was cleared, first with Mannam leaving. They'd been standing there at least an hour, and were much more uncomfortable than the Shinchonji tribes.

I only just realised now that I've photographed this same display three times throughout. The first two were together near the beginning though, and I deleted one of them for redundancy.

There goes green.

Yeah, oops.

Next were the Mass Games, in which 2000 Korean youths dressed in white ran across the field carrying colour-coded pixels.

You can see how the mass gamers operate here.

They had sort of shepherds keeping them all in formation, no easy task I'm sure.

Unfortunately from our vantage point, it was hard to see what shapes they were making.

I do know that this was a person who was about to eat a bunch of running tiny humans.

144 000, the number of converts Shinchonji needs in order to fulfill Revelation for Heaven to descend upon Earth.

Same message from long ago, "Truth of ___ Beautiful Shinchonji."

Remarkable how they can all file together so quickly and change colour all at once.

During the mass games, we were grabbed again, this time Curtis and I together. One very understanding Mannam girl sorted everything out, and then helped us get press passes without having to leave our seats. We explained how we were allowed in without press passes, but they only seemed to harass us when we had our cameras out, oddly.

Around that time, we were all thinking we needed to get out and clear our heads. We had the intention of probably coming back, and they wanted us to stay and see everything that happened, but it was just too much of a headache. I was told by the Mannam media rep that we probably wouldn't be allowed back in because they were stressed about us, and at that point I just thought that I wanted to get out and not come back in. I did kind of an exit interview on camera for them saying why I was interested in coming, and we were set to leave.

Then they told us they'd have to see the pictures we took. This quickly morphed into we would have to delete all our pictures. We refused, so they offered us an alternative: sign a document saying we wouldn't publish anything critical. They felt bad about it, and probably knew it was a very unreasonable request to make that would make them look bad, far worse than any of the pictures above could (the pictures I say representing them pulling off an amazing feat). We eventually left without signing or deleting anything.

Outside the stadium, there were tens of thousands of SCJ people lined up, waiting for their chance to charge in. They all waved and said hi and wanted us to take their pictures, and there were no SCJ people around with wires in their ears, so why not?

Looks like they're from Jeonju, judging by their leader's shirt.

As we were walking, we almost crashed directly into this marching band. I whipped out my camera to take a picture and the lens popped out. Fortunately my hand was on it, but i missed a lot of great photos.

One last one on the way out.

I hopped on my scooter and took off, only to see this spectacle of all the buses they used to ship people in.

Sunset was fiery that night.

Please remember that these photos are all copyrighted to me. If you want to use them in any way, there's a 90 per cent chance I'll give you my permission, and be able to give you a copy with a higher DPI.
Copyright Daehanmindecline 2011