The topic of the Mannam Volunteer Association came up in the office earlier in the week. There have been mass emails on other University campuses in the city warning incoming students, especially foreigners, that these people aren’t being honest with their campaigns of “volunteering” when they approach foreigners. There was a thread on Reddit recently about how this organization qualifies as being a “cult”. I wanted to list my interactions with this group just to be as informative as possible to people that haven’t yet been approached by one of their members.

I’ve been targeted several times by the Mannam Volunteer Association in the past year. It isn’t surprising, as there are group centers near where I used to meet friends to play cards fairly often. The Mannam group recruits Korean members with strong English speaking skills, even English majors from my University, to approach foreigners to get them to come to their group activities. One of their “draws” to get people to come to their group meetings is finding people that are new to Korea specifically to get them to come to free Korean classes.

The first time I was recruited to this group, I was playing cards in a cafe with someone that had only been in Korea for five or six months. A Mannam member from my University approached us and asked what we were doing. She introduced herself as a member of a “Cafe M”, which provided free Korean classes. It was located right around the corner from where we were playing cards, and was open to foreigners any time they wanted to stop by. She asked about our time spent in Korea, and as soon as she heard I had been here more than a decade, she immediately started to ignore me. Her posture changed, instead of facing us both equally, she shifted her shoulders, shutting me out of the conversation, and started asking my friend with intense interest. She wanted his phone number and any other contact information he was willing to provide.

The other times I’ve been personally recruited, the people trying to find information were very well spoken and friendly, but once they found out my personal details they dropped any interest in trying to recruit me and turned to any of the foreigners I was with. They wanted to know things like, “Do you know how to speak Korean?”, “Do you have friends in Korea?” and, “Do you have Korean friends?”. These are questions you’ll hear extremely often as a foreigner, so it doesn’t really raise many alarms with me until they try to invite me to something, or want to know my contact information. The recruiters that have approached me are often attractive, young women with excellent English, usually in pairs. They will flirt with you, get on your good side, and then go for the jugular.

They are very non-threatening and polite, but it’s a ruse to get to know if you are worth the effort of recruiting further. Every single time I’ve been approached and they found out more information  about my like in Korea, they’ve made a comment like, “Oh, you are married.” or ” I didn’t realize you would have a wife.” or “You don’t look like you are married.” That shuts d0wn their interest in me immediately.  It’s not like I hide my wedding ring. I don’t fit their target recruitment strategy, so they move on.

I thought it was weird at the time, but knowing their recruiting tactics now it makes a lot of sense. The Mannam modus operandi is to look for foreigners new to Korea that do not have a strong social network. From what I’ve heard from people that have attended their events, getting foreigners to appear at a Mannam event is a way to give legitimacy to their goals and further drives their recruitment of more Koreans. The Koreans view the foreigners as photographic evidence of international support of their opinions. If you are a Korean with excellent English skills, it makes sense to join a group with lots of foreigners at the events to practice your speaking skills.

Someone told me that he knew a foreigner that went to a Mannam event. It was to promote understanding and to help other countries. This foreign volunteer ended up feeling like a prop for a photographer getting shots of people of the event at the detriment of the stated goal of meeting. They weren’t allowed to fraternize with people from different groups at a meeting to promote “world peace.” Irony.

The connections the Mannam Volunteer Association has to other groups (as detailed in Scroozle) means I’d highly steering clear of this group, following the recommendations of the University and people that know better. The fact that they specifically target people new to Korea, and try to find people with less developed social contacts to approach for recruitment makes me furious. It is  exploitative to approach someone you know to be vulnerable to further your goals, taking advantage of their culture shock, isolation, and deficit in language skills.

While they do offer Korean classes, being able to mold someone’s language skills and knowledge of the culture must be an advantage. It’s also probably a huge recruitment tool for foreigners to bring along other friends. If a foreigner brings along another friend, it’s doing the work for the group. Also, the repayment for these “Free” Korean classes is actually volunteering on behalf of the group to help Korean speakers learn English. This furthers the goals of the group while appearing “fair” to the foreigners they’ve now involved more deeply in the group.

If I had to give advice to foreigners new to Korea, if you are approached by people in the Mannam group, be careful about what information you give about yourself, don’t get involved, and if you happened to be going somewhere to meet people, don’t share that information. Don’t give away hotspots for meeting new foreigners to Mannam members, unless you want to see the group start showing up there too. Beware!