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Raëlism, the first UFO-based religion, has a noticeable presence in South Korea. Although no one knows for sure, there are estimated to be around one hundred due-paying members of the Raëlian church in Korea, a number that has decreased drastically in the past few years due to a recent rash of accusations against its leader Raël. Despite the Korean government’s attempt to keep him out — immigration officials denied Raël entrance into the country by holding him at Incheon airport – he maintains a small but loyal following through his seminars and teachings, many of which are available online.
The waning popularity of the religion in Korea can be traced to an ex-Raëlian named Wonjune Lee, who publishes information on his website Raelian.com that reveals the “un prophet-like deeds” of Raël. Ex-Raëlians who tell their story do so knowing that they might be prosecuted for slander. Despite this, many others have come forward with their own stories of difficulties inside the movement. One former priestess says she was bullied and openly ridiculed by Raël, while another former guide points out inconsistencies in Raël’s storytelling. Wonjune founded a global platform for former Raëlians to speak openly about their experiences, and he even translates the content into five languages offered on the site: English, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
Like many religions, the core of Raëlism is a creation story, which goes like this: human beings were created by extraterrestrials called the Elohim. The Elohim were brilliant scientists, exiles from their own planet who sought out a safe haven for their creation to live. They settled on Earth and reshaped its landscape using large explosions. Fast-forward a few years later to 1973: former racecar driver and journalist Claude Vorilhon encounters a UFO while walking in rural France. A platform descended from the craft and a small being emerged and began conversing with him, giving him the material for Intelligent Design: Message From The Designers, a kind of Raëlian bible. Vorilhon has called himself Raël and started preaching the gospel ever since.
Raëlians are devoted to informing humans about the existence of the Elohim and to the construction of a $20 million structure called The Raëlian Embassy for Extraterrestrials which will serve as a gateway to greet the Elohim when they return to Earth. Because Raëlians believe in aliens, world peace, free love and nonviolence, they can seem pretty much like hippies. But under the spell of Raël, they can also display a cult-like adherence to doctrine, which extends to loopy sci-fi fantasies of cloning: a Raëlian company called Clonaid claimed to have cloned the first human in 2003.
Wonjune joined the church in 1998 after meeting a Raëlian in Seoul, but quit in 2009 after having revelations of his own about Raël, whom he calls “an ugly guy” who “uses docile people". As for Clonaid, Wonjune dismisses it as a "scam company", and insists that there aren't any Raëlians who possess the skills needed for cloning.
“I was guide assistant level three for many years," he tells Dazed, "serving the national guides to most Asian countries for mostly translation work. For this reason, my computer has a lot of confidential information stored in it. Claude Vorilhon Raël lectured us at seminars, 'Leave your country and learn new language!’ Well, I left my country (Korea) and learned French, and I found a lot of information written in French which reveals Raël's true identity."
"During my Raëlian years, I never believed in eternal life or heavenly salvation – I only hoped, to be honest," he continues. "And this attitude led me to see the truth and finally saved myself from the edge."
Wonjune's natural pessisim came in handy – Raël demands that his followers donate ten per cent of their salary to him, but Wonjune declined to contribute once he saw where the donations were going. "I did buy a lot of Claude Vorilhon's hardcopy books to disperse," he admits. "Now I have to visit every library to fetch all the books that I donated, and burn them at a campfire.
Wonjune maintains that since leaving, he no longer has any friends in the movement. He now lives in an undisclosed location in a dream village that has "breathtaking" views of nature. He makes his own Kimchi, yogurt and red wine. After his life working as a coder, he refuses to even fix anyone's computer. He revels in his freedom, and in the fact that for the first time, his to-do list is empty.
"Whoever created us, God or Elohim – even if we are the descendants of fish – I thank our creator for setting our lifespan so we can appreciate and enjoy every moment of our life," he philosophises. "If we die in a warm bed peacefully surrounded by our family members, I think that is the true salvation. I'm trying to live as a visitor or an observer in this world. I found this attitude puts me in the state of tranquility. Instead of supporting a con man or even a real prophet, if all of us grow a little flower in our garden then it absolutely makes this world heaven much faster. Doesn’t it?"