Minneapolis, MN -- All Russell Johnson could think about was the pain. His arms were so engorged with blood that he couldn't reach up and touch his face. The skin around his biceps was stretched tight. To eat, he had to lower his face to his plate and chow like a dog. As he lay awake in bed on this his third sleepless night since doing the 100 circular-style pushups at a Chung Moo Quan school, his arms still throbbed-the ache even reached down into his kidneys.
The pushups were punishment. Johnson had been left in charge of the school on the lake in south Minneapolis the Friday before. He was an assistant instructor at the time. (Chung Moo Quan has many ranks of instructors, from national instructors on down to assistants.) The list of instruction he was to follow was on the head instructor's side of the desk, turned toward his chair. It had been drilled into Johnson's head that he was never to go behind the desk unless he had permission. He assumed that the note was probably personal. So he hadn't done the things on the list. Johnson always followed the rules of Chung Moo Quan, no matter how strange they seemed, because he was very serious about martial arts and wanted someday to have the honor of running a school.
That was why he got down to do the pushups, painful as they were. That was why he did things the Chung Moo Quan way: never saying out loud the number "four" (it was "three plus one " instead), entering rooms right foot first, sleeping with his body lined up on an east-west axis, living with other instructors and making his cash payment to the school every month in a plan white envelope.
This night as he lay in bed with his arms swelled up, he was debating whether to go to a doctor. For years he had been taught that John C. Kim, the founder and master of the schools, was all-powerful and could heal anything. He was conditioned to have complete faith in the schools and to believe that every answer was in Chung Moo Quan. It was this training that led Johnson to the schools on Tuesday and Wednesday complaining about his arms. He says one instructor tried acupressure, but his arms were too hard even to make a dent in the skin. They told him to wait until Friday, when a national instructor would be in town to look at him.
Johnson tried to wait. He took hot baths. He put Mineral Ice on his arms. But at 3:00 a.m. he finally sneaked out of the apartment he shared with two other assistant instructors and went to an emergency room. "I decided to go to the hospital and not tell the school. I didn't want to lose my opportunity to learn how to run a school," says Johnson. "All I wanted was some pain and sleeping pills to help me make it until Friday."
But when he got to the hospital, doctors told him that he had Compartment Syndrome that the pockets around his arm muscles weren't getting oxygen. They said that dead muscle tissue was being circulated through his kidneys and that if he didn't have an emergency operation, he could have permanent kidney damage, lose his arms, even die. "When they told me this I tried to leave, but they wouldn't let me," remembers Johnson. I wouldn't sign the release form until the school said it was all right." The hospital wanted to call his family but Johnson wouldn't let them.
When one of the instructors showed up at the hospital, after a phone call, Johnson tried to sit up and bow to him "to show that I still had faith in the school." The instructor told Johnson to stay down and that it was all right not to bow, and he called a national instructor to see what they should do. He gave the okay to operate, since Johnson was already at the hospital. Johnson says he was told that he didn't do anything wrong, that he still had the opportunity to learn how to run a school and Master John C. Kim would have instructors show him a form that would help his arms heal. A form is a choreographed series of blocks and attacks usually simulating nature -the flight of an eagle, the stalk of a tiger, or the relentless waves of the ocean.
He was in the hospital for 16 days, five of those with his arms hanging wide open in the back so they could drain. Doctors had to take skin from his legs to close them up. Instructors brought him movies, pizza, flowers, copies of playboy, and a sweat suit to wear instead of hospital gowning.
But according to Johnson, that was where their loyalty ended. When he returned to teaching, instructors and assistant instructors started asking him why he went to the hospital instead of the school. He started hearing stories about himself being circulated by other Chung Moo Quan members. The suggestion that he'd betrayed his training upset Johnson a great deal. "I felt that [People] were starting to believe this and that I was being used as an example of what happens to a student who doesn't trust the school enough to come for help." Higher belts at the school started criticizing Johnson's work habits and his dedication to the way of John C. Kim.
It got to be to much for Johnson. After all he had been willing to die for Chung Moo Quan. How much more loyalty could they want? He felt betrayed. First he moved away from the other instructors and got an apartment of his own. Then, on November 2, 1988, about eight years after he started, he quite.
"When I quite the school, I also had to quit my full and part-time jobs so the school wouldn't find me and try to get me to come back. I hid in my apartment for six weeks with the lights off and I didn't answer my phone or the door," remembers Johnson. I was really paranoid. And they were coming and ringing my doorbell, coming over at 3 o'clock in the morning." When he finally answered the phone, it was an instructor on the other end wanting Johnson to come and talk. "I said I would, but I never showed."
He was in an excruciating place: still harboring the mistrust of the outside world he'd learned in his years at Chung Moo Quan, and suddenly afraid of the people there, too Yet at heart, Johnson remained loyal to Chung moo Quan and to Kim. He didn't contact an attorney about what happen to his arms until two years after he left, when it became clear that at the people at school weren't going to do what he really wanted-tell John C. Kim the truth about what happen to him. And that he had been a faithful student. The attorney he contacted was the first person whoever suggested to Johnson that he'd been involved with a cult.
Chung Moo Quan advertises its teachings as "Eight Martial Arts Taught as One," stemming from the "1500-year-old royal line of Chung Moo." Currently there are schools in at least six states, including five in Minnesota. City Pages left unreturned messages at three of the Minnesota schools and got the same repeated response "We decline to be interviewed" from the other two. By Russ Johnson's estimate, there are 50-60 students at each Minnesota outlet. There is no way to make an educated guess about school revenues in Minnesota, but a 1990 news report about the ten schools in Chicago area placed revenues there at up to $1.8 million annually.
The schools were founded by John C. Kim, an elusive figure who promotes himself as the "Undefeated Champion of All Asia," a title that Tae Hi Nam of the USA Tae Kwon Do Federation says does not exist. Kim, who was identified in one news report as a former maintenance man, established the first schools in the late 1970s around the Chicago area. The seldom-seen Kim has five addresses and according to one professional search done in 1991, no recorded assets.
Chung Moo Quan literature promises its students confidence, a longer life, and a strong mind and body. This sounded pretty impressive to Johnson when he started, a 16-year-old from the projects in north Minneapolis. Raised by his mother, he yarned for some discipline-a father figure. He turned to martial arts because he wanted to learn how to defend himself on the streets, and because "Chuck Norris movies were big back then."
Johnson went down to the school nearly every day, by bus, on foot, or on his bike. "It started out really positive," he says. "When I started, there was a guy at the Brooklyn Center school. This guy could move like no one I'd ever seen. Like someone out of a movie. He was my instructor for three years or so, and he helped me get away from drugs and do good in school. He'd give me discounts on my payments. They still do that for students who get good grades. "He left in 1983 and then they told me that he went to a school in California. Then they said he had some family problems. Then they told me some women took over his mind. But I've talked to him recently and he told me that he left because he felt he was conning people."
The former instructor, now living out of state, confirms Johnson's story and adds: "At the time it seemed like we were all working together. They would tell you that your mind was strong and that you were powerful, but Kim was pushing all the buttons. The students were investing their time and money in the school, promised the possibility of becoming an instructor or having a school of their own, but that wasn't happening. All the proceeds were going to John C. Kim. When I finally left the school after five years of instructing, I left without a penny, with just the shirt on my back."
Five years later in 1988, Johnson himself was a wreck. He didn't understand why he was so completely collapsed for those six weeks after leaving the school. Nor did he understand the paralysis and the fear. "I had no idea what a cult was," says Johnson. But then he started doing research. He got a book on cults and mind control from the library. He also got a tape of a 1989 investigative series by Chicago TV news reporter Pam Zekman, labeling Chung Moo Quan a cult. It accused instructors of swindling the students out of large sums of money and using mind control techniques.
They had 10 schools in Chicago and it's suburbs-but that number was whittled to three after the broadcast and a subsequent investigation by the Illinois Attorney Generals office and the IRS. When the video was later shown to students at the schools in Houston, around 30 students left. Johnson hadn't heard any of this. Outwardly Chung Moo Quan schools are run as individual business, much like franchises. But ex-students say inwardly they have always been run with an iron hand by Master John C. Kim and a group of national instructors.
All Chung Moo promotional literature comes from a central source in Chicago and looks pretty much the same. Instructors, especially those higher up in the organization, rotate between schools in different parts of the country. The schools also run the same ads across the country (recently starring priest and police officer testimonials).
Ads for the local schools have popped up Twin Cities media, including a two-page spread in last week's Twin Cities Reader, since City Pages began trying to contact them for this story. Students' say-and even the school's critic's admit-the Chung Moo program is rigorous, and that it includes some valuable martial arts skills. "I'm paying $4,800 to get to black belt," says first-year student Chris Newcombe. "That's twice what other school charge. But what they teach there is 10 times more than what they teach at other schools."
It's hard to get former students or students from other martial arts programs to talk on the record about Chung Moo Quan. Many of them cite fear of retaliation from people at the schools. But a number of students and instructors from other Twin Cites martial arts programs who agreed to speak anonymously say money has everything to do with advancement at Chung Moo Quan.
A former Minnesota instructor who spoke to Zekman (but declined to say anymore to City Pages out of fear of reprisal) claims that getting students to sign large contracts was the whole point. He says that after they'd been around a while, students would be humiliated and intimidated -subtly but purposefully-to pull them into advanced courses: "By the time I would get a student into the office, hopefully he's very intimidated and willing to accept my direction and my word on things."My direction would be to get him into black belt course."
Despite repeated efforts, Frank Kucia (a national instructor and 8th-degree black belt reported to be Kim's number-two man), the members of the Minnesota Chung Moo Association, and owners of the schools in the Twin Cities could not reached or declined to comment.
But in the Zekman report, an attorney for the schools in Chicago denied that they were a cult and said he wasn't aware that they were doing anything illegal. Not long after he uttered those words, the Illinois Attorney General's office filed suit against John C. Kim and the Chung Moo Quan schools in the Chicago area, seeking to run them out of the state.
Assistant Attorney General Lynn Worley says they violated Illinois's Physical Fitness and Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices acts. "Those acts say you can only charge up to $2,500 a year for fitness services, you need to give out copies of contracts, and you can't use coercion to sell a service. Those are the rules and we contend that they've violated all of them."
Her office is suing to get possession of a property in Naperville, plus damages for the students who filed complaints. They've include the property in the suit, Worley says because "we believe a great deal of students' money went into the property and maintenance. Students labor went into building the second house."
Chung Moo Quan's troubles have come on two fronts. One is financial. In August 1990, IRS agents raided schools in Chicago and a ranch in Texas for Chung Moo Quan bookkeeping records. The suspicion was that the schools weren't accurately claiming their income. An estimate from a later Zekman report said the Chicago schools claimed around #350,000 in income-but took in more like $1.8 million.
The IRS wouldn't confirm or deny an ongoing investigation, but Johnson says he has had close contact with agents and has turned over information. It's going to be a year or so, but the indictments are going to go down and the way I understand it, the ones who talk now will be allowed to go free, but the other ones are going to be prosecuted."
Ex-students in Illinois and other states, including Minnesota, complain of being charged exorbitant amounts of money for their training-some as much as $50,000. Johnson estimates that he paid a mere $15,000 during his career, but that's still much more than other schools charge.
Chung Moo Quan schools often get around $200 a month, sometimes more, for lessons. Johnson was paying $350 a month when he quite, besides paying large sums for tests and putting in long hours teaching. Other martial arts schools in the Twin Cities say they charge a flat rate between $35 and $75 a month.
Though recently published Chung Moo Quan rates show lower costs as a students advances from belt to belt, several ex-students reported the opposite experience in their time there. And ex-Chung Moo students say they paid in cash even when the payments were thousands of dollars. (This was explained as a mater of deference to Kim and to Asian custom.)
The schools had strange formula for tabulating the payments, too. Whenever students or instructors talked out load about money-and apparently in the books of some schools, according to financial documents from Chicago -actual sums were divided by one hundred. If you were talking about a hundred dollars, you said "one dollar." Johnson says he was told that's because money means nothing to John C. Kim; to him, a hundred dollars only seemed like a dollar. "It belittled the money," says Johnson. "After a while, you didn't think a lot of $200."
Johnson and other Minnesota ex-students say they were promised that one day they would own a school or at least be an instructor and be making as much as a doctor or a lawyer. "They said to consider it like college tuition," says Johnson. "And I thought well, if that's the case, $200 a month isn't so bad. I go through a hard time now, but later on things would be easy."
Often they got second and third jobs to pay the fees, or took out loans, or sold valuables. "I don't think it was the instructors' intention, in their own minds, to deceive us. It was what they call heavenly deception-where they deceive people to help them have a better life. "Most of these people are good people," says Johnson. "But they got involved in a corrupt system."
He admits he used manipulation techniques as well. One of Johnson's duties as an assistant instructor was to conduct what he calls "sideways conversation." "Someone would come in and I'd find out detailed personal information, like how much money they made, if they were married or single. If they had anything in their savings account. What kind of car they drove. I'd buddy up to them. Then I'd go and tell an instructor what they told me. And I felt like I was helping this person, that the instructor would give them a black belt and they would have a better life and a stronger mind and body."
Another Minnesota ex-student who didn't want to be named says he and his wife paid $20,000 during their three-year stint in the schools "I regret and resent the amount of money I paid," he says. "I felt their style was intimidation." And there was always the encouragement to become an instructor. "I heard I would earn $40-$80,00. Later I learned they were earning very little." (Former instructors say they only made around $8-$12,000 a year.) He likens the setup to a pyramid scheme: "All the money is funneled up. Very few-only those at the top-benefit."
In Minnesota there have been only two complaints against Chung Moo Quan filed with the Attorney General's office. According to MaryKay Milla, assistant communication director, in both cases the students got their money back under the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Currently Johnson and one other former Minnesota student are preparing to file complaints in hopes of pushing the office into opening an investigation. But Milla says at the most they'd only be able to charge them with misleading students by using deceptive trade practices.
Though Minnesota does have law regulating health clubs, Milla says martial arts schools don't fall under those laws.
Pictures of John C. Kim doing martial arts stunts are all over the outside of the Chung Moo Quan schools. Kim himself is the center of Chung Moo Quan philosophy. But it's more the mystery of John C. Kim than anything about the actual man that the students learn. "You weren't allowed to ask personal questions about Kim," recalls Johnson. "But I met Kim twice, so I know he exists." City Pages efforts to track Kim down at any of his five known addresses failed. "Master" supposedly worked his whole life to develop the Chung Moo Quan forms.
According to Kurt Chappell, an Assistant instructor in Houston and six-year member until he left Chung Moo Quan last year, "They tell you that you are learning the most powerful movements in the world, but most of them you can find at any other school. They would say that everything came from John C. Kim, even the stretches. If they can get you to believe that everything comes from them, they have complete control. I used to been in athletics in high school, and though I bought into it, I knew that I had done the same stretches there."
Though the Zekman report said Kim was a former maintenance man, he was touted to students as a superman. " I was told that once a man was dying and the doctors couldn't do anything," remembers Johnson, "and John C. Kim came in and made all the doctors leave and then he healed this person.
"I always had a hard time with the story that Master Kim could run to Duluth in 45 minutes, but I was shaking my head yes when they were telling me." Other outlandish stories claimed that when movie star Bruce Lee died in 1973, it had been Kim who sent a higher belt to kill him because he was divulging secrets about Chung Moo Quan.
According to yet another legend, Kim slept with 3,000 women and they all either killed themselves or became nuns because they couldn't handle it. Johnson says this story plays into Chung Moo Quan's strange ideas about women.
They told us that have no minds. They didn't say stay away from women, but we were supposed to control the relationship. They'd say that the women always wants control of the relationship but when has she doesn't know what to do with it. I was not allowed to sign up a woman on the first day of the month. If one came in, I would have to tell her I was out of release forms or membership forms and that she would have to come back later. You were always supposed to start the first day of the month off with a strong male."
Others say were told that Kim could break a mirror without touching it and that he could take on different physical forms-he could be anybody, and you wouldn't know it. One of the most interesting tales came from an ex-Minnesota student who said he was told that someone in Chicago had touched one of John C. Kim's pictures and had been frozen on the spot. Instructors at the school had to get a Kim on the phone to have him talk the student out of it.
Chung Moo Quan has thrown a lot of parties in the Twin Cites. But none was so important as the one planned every year for John C. Kim's birthday. Students would stay up all night making elaborate frostings designs on cakes and they were all expected to contribute to a gift fund. "Usually $100 would be the minimum for black belts," recalls Johnson.
In a court hearing in Texas last July, an instructor from the area claimed that the money they collected for Kim's birthday didn't even go to him. The man said Kim didn't accept it.
"The first time I met Kim," says Johnson, "was at the national instructor's house. He talked to us about his life, and about his life on Bow & Arrow Mountain [in Korea]. Which he said got its name because you could shoot an arrow up into the mountain and it'd never come back. And I thought, "That doesn't make any sense. Of course an arrow's not going to come back to you.'
"He talked about living in the caves with tigers and all these different animals, and how he developed his forms. He talked to us for about three hours. Can you imagine sitting with your legs crossed for three hours while someone's talking? My legs were asleep. My back was dying. He just went on and on.
The stuff he was saying didn't make much sense. It just went in circles, really confusing. But you had work for all this time and you felt like you hadn't learned anything-that all this time with all the money and hard training, you still hadn't done anything. He'd break you down and he'd start you all over again.
Some of the mystery might be lifted from the image of John C. Kim when he is forced to give a deposition to the Attorney General's office in Chicago later this year.
Kim is the top," says Johnson of the Chung Moo mind set. "He is the best that you can be. And so people want to be perfect like him. So, they start cloning him. Kim gets a perm, instructors across the country get perms. He grows a mustache and they grow mustaches. He speaks broken English, so Americans speak broken English."
You never use the article "the' before "school' in referring to the place; it's just "school". Likewise, among instructors and advanced belts, requests are usually prefaced by "Be all right to ask yourself...? Ex-students say Chung Moo Quan schools encourage students to talk this way, live together, work long hours, and follow rules based on superstition both in and out of the school and always, to idolize John C. Kim.
Some ex-students are willing to give Chung Moo Quan's intentions the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's a screwed-up transplant of Eastern principles, suggests one ex-Minnesota student: "In the East you're taught to surrender to your teachers. You have to show your dedication before you learn anything. But I feel that in this case the trust was abused."
But Doug Agustin, president of Free Minds Inc., a Minneapolis organization that gathers information on and works with other people involved in cults, claims Chung Moo Quan clearly fits the bill. He points to the excessive control some instructors have over their students and assistant instructors.
For example, he says, "There is one young man who is still involved with the schools. His mother came to us saying he had come home for a holiday and he had to call the school and get permission to stay another hour to see his grandmother." That set off a red flag with the mother."
A Minneapolis women closely acquainted with two former students says she recalls that "the prices seemed really high. One [man] paid about $10,000 over a two- or three-year period. He sold things and worked two- or three jobs. At one point he was borrowing money from family to stay in-$3,000 from one family member alone."
Agustin, says his group has gotten about two dozen calls in the last two years about Chung Moo Quan-most of them local-says the difference between a destructive cult and a legitimate organization is this: "If it's a legitimate system, the control stays with the individual. If it's destructive, the group takes control." He says he's heard of numerous cases where Chung Moo Quan schools have gone so far as to use overt threats of violence to keep the upper hand.
Joe Szimhart has been doing research on cults since 1981 and has exit-counseled former members since 1985. He's become an expert in thought-control systems, working with ex-members of 150 or so groups around the country. He recently spoke to a group of about a dozen former Chung Moo students in Houston.
Szimhart says in his experience, most of the hardcore indoctrination activity in Chung Moo Quan happens when students get up into the black belt courses: "I'm not talking about general students. It happens within management and the instructors in the school." Johnson agrees: "It's a gradual. Because you go in to defend yourself and think positive. Next thing you know, you are getting all these phobias about women, phobias about numbers."
Keith Griffin, head instructor and program director of Griffin Martial Arts, says when former Chung Moo Quan students come to his school for lessons, "They are real disciplined. Their eyes get glossy and they appear zoned out." He says Chung Moo Quan is one of the only schools in town that doesn't complete with other schools. He claims, "they'd be exposed real quick."
Chung Moo Quan officials have commented in the past that they don't complete because the skills they teach are "too deadly"-a stance that ex-students say feeds the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Says Kurt Chappell: "I was black and blue from my neck down to my shins many times when I came home after training. They used to beat on you. It was intimidation. It was considered wrong to block a punch from your instructor. You weren't allowed to."
Johnson says once when he was an assistant instructor, he was told to "go practice with a student and to knock him out. I didn't knock him out, but I knocked the wind out of him. And I didn't ask why. I just said yes, Instructor. I put my heel in his stomach as hard as I could and knocked the wind out of him. I figured either they were testing me to see how loyal I was or he did something wrong and deserved the punishment."
In 1989 Will Smith-Vaniz, at the time a Chung Moo Quan student in Arlington, Massachusetts, filed a suited against the school. He says that when he asked for a copy of his contract, he was grabbed very hard around his windpipe and asked "How would you like to die right now?" Vaniz says he suffered a neck injury; his attorney says the case was settled out of court.
Johnson is now part of a network of former students trying to spread the word about Chung Moo Quan. They believe the schools don't allow students and instructors to know what is going on with Chung Moo Quan in other states, or what ex-students have to say.
Their efforts have gotten them threats from the school. Chappell was attacked at an airport by someone he claims to have recognized from a school in another city. And seven of them are being sued by the schools for slander.
Though Johnson hasn't been physically harmed, he worries about it. "When I go to the grocery store, I have to look around. It's an uncomfortable feeling to always have to watch your back. I've moved like three times since July, but I haven't moved lately because I got the attitude that it's time for me to stop being afraid and for other people to start."
Chung Moo Quan puts out menacing flyers on ex-students, calling them high-paid deprogrammers using pornographic techniques and saying they are "wanted for questioning"
The latest on Johnson was distributed in January at a place he likes to frequent. It said if anyone had any information on Johnson's whereabouts, they should contact the Chung Moo Association and gave an address.
The slander suit was filed after the seven former students had talked and showed the Zekman report to students and ex-students in Texas. Joe Szimhart and Sondra Chesky, president of the Houston branch of the Cult Awareness Network, are also named as defendants. Last July, the schools sought and were denied a gag order on the defendants. But in an ironic twist, the defendants were granted their counter-request for a restraining order against the school's harassment and threats of violence.
The slander suit will probably come to court in about a year-around the same time the IRS could be making a move.
Since the Zekman broadcast, ex-students say the schools have made some changes. One current student says he has a copy of his contract-something the schools never used to give out routinely. Johnson says he's heard that's common now. But Kurt Chappell, who was enrolled in Houston until 10 months ago, says the changes have been mostly superficial. "They have started talking checks, though they still asked for cash from me."
And for the first time that anyone could recall, they have published a list of their prices. It's been a strange road for these ex-students who have chosen to speck out against a system they see as corrupt.
After all, for years these people were like family. And the superstitions are hard to kick. "Sometimes I still step into a room right foot first because that's the way they taught me." says Russ Johnson. I catch myself, like I go to the gas station and I won't use pump four, because four is an unlucky number. I think, oh, car will break down. Stupid shit like that."