Korean 'messiah' leaves behind religious and business empire

The Rev. Moon Sun-myung founded the Unification Church, The Washington Times, and a motor vehicle line in North Korea. 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
In this July photo, the Rev. Moon Sun-myung (l.), founder of the Unification Church, is escorted by his son during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Peace Cup Suwon at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea. Moon died Monday.

The Rev. Moon Sun-myung, who called himself the “messiah” and founded a global religious movement as well as far-flung business interests, died Monday at his Unification Church complex east of South Korea's capital, Seoul, surrounded by family members and well-wishers.

Famed globally for his cult following of “Moonies” dedicated to worshiping him as a savior of mankind, the Rev. Moon came to be known for presiding with his wife over mass weddings of couples whom he had united on the basis of photographs and brief life stories. He also built up a global commercial empire, founding The Washington Times 30 years ago along with newspapers in Seoul and Tokyo and numerous other enterprises in fields ranging from publishing to tourism to fishing.

A political rightist and a religious zealot who claimed to have been ordained by God to minister to the world, Moon defied simplistic analysis and type-casting. Despite his conservatism, he passionately espoused relations with North Korea. Obsessed with his self-image, he attracted followers with calls for tolerance embracing all people.

Moon leaves behind a struggling and divided religious and business empire with tentacles spreading from Korea to Japan, the United States, South America, and Europe. The question now is whether the empire can overcome divisions among sons and daughters and regain the strength of its glory days in the 1960s and '70s as a religious and commercial force.

A prolific man

Moon’s wife, Hak Ja-han, whom he married 10 years after fleeing captivity in North Korea in the Korean War and walking 300 miles to the South Korean port of Pusan, was at his side along with many of their sons, daughters, and grandchildren when he passed away at the age of 92.

Moon liked to say that he and his wife, who often led cheering congregations in song, were the “true parents” of the world’s people. The Moons had seven sons and seven daughters. Moon also had another son by his first wife, whom he divorced shortly before marrying Hak Ja-han, and other children in extramarital relationships.

Moon Kook-Jin, raised as “Justin” in the US, and youngest brother Moon Hyung-jin, known as “Sean,” have vowed as leaders of their father’s spiritual and commercial interests in Korea to perpetuate his controversial legacy. Justin Moon runs the Tongil Foundation, the group’s central business organization in Seoul, while Sean Moon is international leader of the church, which claims several million members.

Justin Moon’s foundation, however, has long been at odds with US-based business interests run by brother Moon Hyun-jin, that is, “Preston” Moon.

Their older sister, Moon In-jin, called “Tatiana,” commands her own organization in the US as president of the Unification Church USA. Two years ago she helped to rescue The Washington Times, which has lost more than $2 billion since Moon founded it in 1982, by purchasing it from Preston’s group for $1 and reviving news and sports coverage.

A farmer's son

The wheeling and dealing of Moon and his progeny were often shrouded in secrecy, but the deepest mystery was how he came to possess the drive and vision needed to lead a global network of churches and enterprises involved in an amazing range of activities.

Born to a Christian farming family in North Korea, educated for two years in World War II at Waseda, a prestigious university in Tokyo, he returned to North Korea after the war to spread his religious message. Imprisoned by the North’s communist regime in 1948 for his teachings, he escaped two years later after the outbreak of the Korean War when US planes bombed the prison, killing many and breaking down the walls.

“He is telling us to challenge us to reach levels that we had not imagined possible in order to find God in our personal life and accomplish great dreams for God and humanity,” says Robin Marsh, secretary-general in London of the Universal Peace Federation, one of the groupings through which Moon spread his teachings. “He invested so many hours and resources in raising, educating, and training us, for which I am very grateful.”

After founding the Unification Church in Seoul soon after the Korean War ended in 1953, Moon opened congregations in South Korea, spread his teachings to Japan and finally, in 1972, left for the US. There he lectured widely – and even got to see President Richard M. Nixon after calling for Americans to “forgive, love, and unite” during the Watergate scandal.

Moon built a global following even though, as he often boasted, he was imprisoned half a dozen times – first in North Korea, then in South Korea, and finally in the US. Indicted in 1981 for tax evasion, he spent 13 months in the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn.

Outreach to North Korea

Among the greatest contradictions of Moon’s career was his passion for reconciliation with North Korea even while he appeared anticommunist in the cold war and a loyal fan of Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in South Korea in 1961 and ruled until his assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979.

Looking for business and influence inside the Soviet bloc and also in North Korea, Moon met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 and one year later saw the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. He professed “a special relationship” with North Korea while his organization founded a motor vehicle plant for assembling vehicles from Fiat parts and designs in the port city of Nampo. The company, named Pyeongwha, for Peace, Motors, makes sedans for privileged North Koreans.

Moon’s vision extended from commerce to the media. He founded The Washington Times with the aid of a retired South Korean Army officer and diplomat, Pak Bo-hi, who remained one of his right-hand men, as well as daily newspapers in Seoul and Tokyo and magazines in the US, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.

One of his organizations in 2000 bought the remnants of United Press International, a once great news agency that had fallen on hard times. Among other interests, Moon companies have manufactured small components of military weapons in South Korea.

Mass weddings

Moon and his wife probably garnered the most publicity, however, through mass weddings over which they presided as “True Parents of Mankind.” The two saw themselves as empowered by God to join couples in holy matrimony through which their followers would be released from original sin. 

Moon officiated as “the King of all Kings” while his wife blessed the women in white gowns, the men in dark suits and mostly red neckties. Venues ranged from Madison Square Garden in 1982 to Seoul’s Chamshil Stadium in 1992.

In the last such ceremony more than two years ago, at a spacious exhibition center near Seoul, 7,000 couples from Korea and 20 other countries said “I do” at “The True Parents’ Cosmic Blessing Ceremony.”

For many, Moon leaves behind a sense of puzzlement mingled with humor about the controversies he inspired and his uncanny way of weathering storms of criticism.

“I would say he got away with it over and over and over and yet over again,” says Tom Coyner, a business consultant in Seoul. “The world will simply be a bit less colorful place with the passing of the Korean messiah.”

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