Content Warnings: imprisonment, religious persecution, torture, trafficking, rape, brainwashing
Falun Gong, officially known as Falun Dafa, is a form of qigong, which roughly translates to ‘cultivation.’ Qigong is similar to yoga or tai chi and focuses on the perfection and refinement of mind and body. Falun Gong takes this a step further and incorporates the cultivation of morality and virtue. In 1992, Li Hongzhi introduced the practice to China. As the practice grew in popularity, excitement about the health and wellness benefits associated with the tradition have flourished. Not only this, but the culture of Falun Gong experienced a rediscovery of ancient Chinese philosophies combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
The Chinese government largely celebrated the practice throughout the 1990s, but on April 25th, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Jiang Zemin, launched a violent campaign against Falun Gong by issuing a letter expressing their wish to see Falun Gong destroyed. The atheist communist regime, which notoriously rules by the threat of force, was itself threatened by the emphasis on morality and traditional Chinese culture found in practitioners.
Since 1999, an organization called Friends of Falun Gong has reported cases of torture, disappearance, brainwashing, rape, and death of Falun Gong practitioners by the CCP. When a person dies while imprisoned, families are told that their loved one committed suicide or died of a disease, but the bodies are cremated before evidence can be gathered. Notably, a relatively new development alleges that many of these detainees are victims of organ trafficking.
Through propaganda campaigns, the CCP has classified Falun Gong as a xiejiao, which in some contexts has similar implications to the word ‘cult.’ Personally, as someone who actively studies religion and cults, I would not qualify the practice as a cult, as it does not pass any widely accepted tests qualifying organizations as cults.
Propaganda and Unclear Beliefs of Americanized Version
In my research about Falun Gong, I found very conflicting information about the moral beliefs of practitioners. Officially, they have three significant tenets: Zhen, Shan, and Ren, which translate to truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, respectively. They emphasize ancient Chinese values and, by my evaluation, hold a form of virtue ethics. As far as I can tell, the version being practiced in China is unharmful and beneficial to its practitioners. The relationship between Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong and the Americanized version based in New York is unclear. The following are productions of the official organization of Falun Dafa.
Shen Yun is a dance-based performance/production sponsored and organized by Falun Dafa. They are based in New York City and perform internationally but do not perform in China for fear of persecution. The performance has themes of anti-Marxism, anti-atheism, and a passing instance of homophobia. Jio Tolentino, a writer for the New Yorker, saw the show twice in New York and calls the production uncanny and unsettling. Throughout my research, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners personally expressing the themes seen in Shen Yun.
The Epoch Times is a newspaper sponsored by and associated with Falun Dafa. While claiming to be “unbiased,” they post far-right opinion pieces and side with Trump in many of their political articles. To anyone with an ear tuned to the sound of right-wing dog whistles, the Epoch Times website is loud, high-pitched, and painful. Again, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners expressing the harmful themes found in the Epoch Times. It seems to me that the Americanized version of Falun Gong is a harmful version of what is being practiced and persecuted in China.
Religious Rights and Persecution
Human rights, with respect to a person’s religion, is a complicated subject. Too often, we see people using the excuse of religious freedom to act in a bigoted way toward certain communities. Religion is a personal practice meant, consciously or otherwise, to help a person cope with and understand the trials and tribulations of existing as a human in this world. Sometimes, that religion will come with a set of morals that each practitioner decides to follow. People have a natural right to practice their own religion and to determine their own moral codes without persecution or intervention. But, as with every right, this only extends insofar as it does not impede the rights of others.
The CCP must be held accountable for imprisoning, torturing, and trafficking the organs of Falun Gong practitioners in China. These people are not impeding on the rights of others. They peacefully practice truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance while aligning their body and mind through qigong. In accordance with my working definition of religion, nobody deserves to face religious persecution. Everyone has a right to decide how they will come to terms with and cope with their own existence. It is important that, as humans, we keep certain spaces safe for people to cultivate their spirituality. By taking away every space that may be safe for these people to practice, the CCP is violating their rights.
Note from the author: This post is the second of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading part one before this, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.
Content Warnings: cults, mass manipulation, death by suicide, honor killings, abusive governments
Charles Manson of the Manson Family convinced his followers to murder nine people who criticized him. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate convinced thirty-nine members to commit suicide in hopes of leaving their bodily “containers” and ascending into a spaceship hidden behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Jim Jones of Jonestown convinced nine hundred and nine people to drink poisoned kool-aid in a mass suicide mission. What quality unites all these people and gives them the ability to hold such great power over their captive audience? The answer, of course, is charisma. When a charismatic person with a hunger for power learns how to manipulate a group of people, there is no limit to the amount of power that they have access to.
My specialty in human rights research is in religion and cults. I have been studying religion and cults informally for many years, and formally since my start at UAB. While reading Sandra Fahy’s book, Dying for Rights (cited in Part 1 of this series), many red flags stood out to me. Every new thing I learned added evidence to my theory that North Korea would qualify as a cult under pretty much every model of qualification widely accepted by professional researchers of religion and cults. Below, I break down North Korea’s regime and classify it as a cult based on three main criteria:
First and foremost, the group must have an all-encompassing leader who has convinced the group that they are perfect and can do no wrong. This person could be a real person or a theoretical, such as a god or deity. Second, there must be an in-group vs. out-group system of understanding. Members of the group believe that they are fundamentally different, usually fundamentally better in some way than non-members of the group. Third, the leader must exercise excess control over the lives of the members of the group. The most comprehensive model of examining the treatment of cult members by their leaders was created by Steven Hassan and is called the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. It is widely accepted that groups are cults insofar as they comply with the BITE model. I will better explain what this entails in the section of this article titled, “BITE Control.”
Cult of Personality: The lore of Kim Il-Sung and His Predecessors
Kim Il-Sung came to power in 1949, only 4 years after the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel. Tensions between North and South Korea were steadily rising, and the 38th parallel was not yet demilitarized. Kim gained power through the rising hatred of South Korea and the Allies of WWII. He was a very charismatic leader who gained popularity through manipulation, false promises, and specialization*. He gave himself the name “Supreme Leader” and convinced the public of North Korea that he was sent from a god to Make Korea Great Again.The public was convinced that he was immortal, infallible, and omnipresent, similar to the concept of “God” in most religions. To this day, each North Korean home has a picture of Kim Il-Sung, and if they are found to have damaged it or taken it down, they are sent to prison. When he died in 1994, the country publicly cried out and anyone found not to be mourning was sent to prison.
*In this context, specialization is the process by which leaders of groups make the members feel as though they are inherently different, or inherently better than non-members.
The story of his immortality had to be revised. They now told people that Kim Il-Sung willingly gave up his position as Supreme Leader because he wished for his son, Kim Jong-Il, to take over. They were told that he honorably sacrificed his life for the betterment of his country by empowering his son. Kim Jong-Il carried on his cult of personality until his death in 2011 when the process was repeated. His son, Kim Jong-Un, took over and is still in power today. Each citizen still believes that the Supreme Leader holds the power of the Universe, only dies when they choose to give up their position, and grasps a level of understanding that others cannot even aspire to.
Us vs. Them
Since the division of the Korean peninsula after the surrender of Japan that ended World War II, North Koreans have internalized that they are fundamentally different from other people. They believe that immigrants and their descendants with non-Korean ancestry are spies from other countries, South Koreans and Americans are inherently evil, and any outsider who criticizes the state is disrespecting their Supreme Leader and the god who sent them. By internalizing their national identity as the most important aspect of themselves, they are manipulated into devoting more and more of themselves to the regime, to the point of death. By internalizing the dehumanization of non-North Koreans, they can justify the threats of extreme violence by the regime toward other countries, such as the lingering threat of atomic war.
BITE stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotion. Groups are evaluated as cults insofar as they control these four aspects of their members’ lives. View the official Bite Model here.
B – Behavior Control
Any behavior not approved by the state is punishable to the fullest extent of the law, at the discretion of the judges who are appointed by the regime. As one can expect, these judges do not make decisions based on the actions of the accused. Their decisions are overwhelmingly based on one’s Songbun (or class), explained in part one of this series. People of North Korea, especially those of lower Songbun do not have control over their actions. Anything they do can and will be used against them at any chance the police force gets, without prior knowledge of any laws they may be unintentionally breaking. This strongly exacerbates the imbalance of power and starkly divides classes. In the third part of this series, I will delve deeper into the prison system of the DPRK and the corruption that comes with it. Check out the third part of this series titled, “Control by Threat of Force: The Abuses of the Criminal System of North Korea” for more information.
I – Information Control
The only media that North Koreans have access to (legally or otherwise) is 100% state-sanctioned. State-sanctioned media reporters are instructed to use certain pitches, tones, and audiovisual illusions to strategically convey their message. When watching this media, citizens are said to be put in a dissociative state, similar to the experience of those in other cults hearing leaders speak, where any meaningful information is not received. Critics of North Korea refer to this as brain fog. When this is the only media not punishable by law, it is difficult for citizens to ‘see through the fog’ for any information that could enable them to tap into their human rights or political ability.
The DPRK extends this brain fog to the media that it allows to leave the country. Think about what you know about North Korea and if you have ever heard any clear, concise information about the human rights abuses occurring there. It probably looks foggy. They are not shy about admitting their use of this strategy.
“One of our strategies is that when the Americans look at our interior, we make it murky as if wrapped in a fog.” (Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. p. 93 Columbia University Press, 2019.).
This is a quote from a North Korean government directive. All information that is approved to leave is scrambled up, mistranslated, and recorded until the perfect amount of confusion and manipulation is communicated. This is why it is important for people like you to spread any information you have about the DPRK to others. Without our help, the fog will effectively stifle any chance of help for these people.
T – Thought Control
A huge way that cults control their members is through indoctrination and the discouragement of skepticism. As seen in the last section, the only media that North Koreans are allowed to consume is state-sanctioned and heavily indoctrinating. If it is found out that any citizen is participating in skepticism about the regime, they will be thrown in prison camps. All community members are forced to report anyone that they hear questioning the regime, and it is not easy to find a group of people who share your concerns without a high risk of being ratted out. It is dangerous and isolating to question the regime, so people avoid doing so.
E – Emotion Control
Each week, every citizen of the DPRK over 14 years of age must attend and speak at a “self-evaluation meeting” with their community. In these meetings, they are forced to tell their community how they could have been better citizens of the regime during the past week. They will admit to times they accidentally bumped into their picture of Kim Il-Sung, or how they complained about being tired after laboring all day. This enforces the culture of juche, the concept of self-sufficiency that guilts North Koreans into suffering and even dying before asking anyone around them for help. These meetings more harshly affect those of lower Songbun, as they are more likely to feel as if they have let their regime down by simply being poor. This type of emotional control leads to the regime’s harsher control over its citizens.
How to Process this Information
Personally, learning about this initially took a bit of a toll on my mental health, so I encourage you to at least take a few deep breaths and do something to take care of yourself. By simply being aware of the ways by which the North Korean regime gains and maintains power over its citizens, you are looking through the fog that the regime intentionally placed over itself. That is a heavy burden to bear. Reading and knowing about these gross human rights violations takes a lot of cognitive and emotional resources. I encourage you, the reader, to take a few minutes after reading this post to process how you are feeling. Do some self-care. Maybe drink some water or follow a 10-minute yoga flow tutorial on youtube. Cry if you need to; you are allowed to feel. Take care of yourself so you can be better equipped to help put an end to these violations in the future.
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