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Sects, money and tragedy have history in Korea

‘Believers are robbed of decision-making abilities. That’s why violence is possible and dangerous.’

May 26,2014
Yoo Byung-eun, leader of the Salvation Sect, is taken to prison in Daejeon on Aug. 1, 1991, after a court issued an arrest warrant for him, as chairman of the now-defunct Semo Group, on fraud charges. [JoongAng Ilbo]
The sinking of the Sewol ferry and the hunt for the shadowy pastor-businessman behind the company that owned and operated it has gripped the nation.

For Lim Young-sook, a 57-year-old housewife in Seoul, it has brought back extremely bad memories of her own family’s tragic brush with Yoo Byung-eun 17 years ago.

Lim’s late mother lived alone in the 1990s in a spacious apartment in Seoul’s Gwanak District. She was known in the neighborhood for being affluent.

A group of strangers befriended her and started dropping by to chat and give her massages. The chats became more frequent, until the point they convinced the old woman she could be saved if she simply joined their religious group: the Evangelical Baptist Church, better known as Guwonpa, or the Salvation Sect, founded by Yoo and his father-in-law.

One day in 1997, the mother declared to her family that salvation had indeed come to her while listening to a tape of one of Yoo’s sermons.

“Guwonpa believers make a record of the exact time at which they got saved, the moment they felt this enormous wave of emotion,” Lim said. “My mom was not an exception.”

But salvation came at a price. Lim’s mother had been buying from her sect friends large amounts of squalene, a type of dietary supplement made from shark livers, which cost 1.3 million won ($1,270) per box. She bought many costly and shoddy items at inflated prices, some of which remain in her house. Lim thinks her mother spent hundreds of millions of won on them.

Then the mother was offered the opportunity to invest in a “heaven-like silver town with top-notch medical staff and facilities” the church was building. She forked over 560 million won, a big portion of her assets, without telling her sons and daughters.

Before long, Yoo’s Semo Group filed for bankruptcy with more than 300 billion won in debt. The 560 million won promissory given to Lim’s mother was worthless. Devastated by the loss and betrayal, the mother was never the same and eventually passed away in 2008 following a lengthy stay in a hospital.

“The Salvation Sect obviously took aim at my mother, who was old and lonely but with a lot of money,” Lim said. “They also rope in people who aren’t rich. But they have to work for free to the church.”

There’s nothing wrong with people offering their labor to a church they believe in. The problem with Yoo, according to Tark Ji-il, a professor of religious history at the Busan Presbyterian University, is that the entrepreneur-pastor built up his businesses through his power as a religious leader - and on the assets or labor of his believers - and then used those businesses to become personally rich.

“Yoo may have started out as a charismatic religious leader but after 40 years he has been blinded by selfish interests and desires,” Tark says. “Yoo preached that corporate activities are equivalent to religious activities … He used his followers as a tool to bloat his wealth.”

Chung Dong-seop, a Christian pastor who was once a part of the Salvation Sect, said in a radio show on April 24 that Yoo, 74, “expanded his business through a sweating system of its believers and exploitation of their labor.”

Geumsuwon, a compound in Anseong, Gyeonggi, run by the Salvation Sect, allowed media in on May 18 to take pictures. Patriarch Yoo Byung-eun was suspected to have taken refuge in the facility before fleeing. By Byun Sun-goo
At the same time, he also ran his businesses unsafely. A series of former Salvation Sect followers have gone public since the Sewol sinking saying they volunteered to help build ferries operated by Semo Group on the Han River starting in 1986. Semo became the subject to an investigation after three of its ferries collided with Mapo Bridge during a flood and capsized in 1990, killing 13 passengers and losing one who is still considered missing. The company was formally cleared of any liability.

“Working hard at companies run by Yoo’s church was identical to salvation and an act of worship,” the former follower-pastor Chung said. The Korea Broadcasting System on April 23 ran an interview with a former employee of Chonghaejin Marine, operator of the Sewol, who said more than 90 percent of the company’s workers are followers of Yoo, although the church officially denied it.

A joint investigation team of police and prosecutors has gotten testimony from executives of Chonghaejin Marine, saying that being a Guwonpa believer was a prerequisite for a promotion to higher positions at the company.



Salvation for self-abnegation

Korea has a tradition of religious sects that exploit believers and evolve into big businesses that enrich their leaders and their families - and often lead to death, suicide or fatal accidents like the Sewol’s sinking.

Smaller cults have flourished offering salvation for some form of self-abnegation before collapsing in crime or waves of their followers’ blood.

In 1982, a woman named Kim Gi-sun founded a Christian-rooted cult, deifying herself. The Trinity, according to her, consists of singing, dancing and laughter and she proclaimed she was clean and sinless because she was aga, a baby in Korean.

Attracting hundreds of believers, she ran a large-scale farm called Aga Hill on 106 acres in Incheon, Gyeonggi. She also ran the biggest record store in Seoul called Shinnara. Believers worked for no pay and surrendered their own property or wealth to the cult.

The cult collapsed in 1996 after dozens of believers reported that Kim ordered the murder of defecting devotees and secretly buried their bodies. A court, however, acquitted her of murder, citing a lack of evidence. Kim, now in her 70s, was instead sentenced to a four-year prison term for tax evasion and embezzlement and was released on bail later.

A Christian doomsday cult in the 1980s called Yeongsaenggyo, literally “eternal life,” ended badly after founder and leader Cho Hee-seong was charged with extorting money and labor from his believers and ordering some to kidnap and murder nine people who were trying to flee the religion or who slandered Cho. He was declared not guilty of murder due to a lack of evidence but was sentenced to two years in prison for harboring convicts. He died of a heart attack in prison in 2004.

The Salvation Sect at the center of the Sewol tragedy traces its origins to the Evangelical Baptist Church, founded in 1962 by Yoo and his father-in-law Kwon Shin-chan. Kwon claimed he was “saved” on Nov. 18, 1961. The church later split into three sects run by different leaders. The two other sects have churches across Seoul and Daejeon that have no connection with Yoo’s Salvation Sect.

The Salvation Sect is known to teach believers they will earn the right to heaven irrespective of their sins - but only after they are formally “saved.” The Presbyterian Church of Korea officially characterized Yoo’s Evangelical Baptist Church as heretics in 1992 for violating mainstream Christian beliefs.

Yoo transformed himself into an entrepreneur in the early 1970s by acquiring a trading firm, becoming chairman of the Semo Group in 1979. Despite Semo’s eventual collapse, Yoo rose from a mountain of debt to become a multi-billionaire in less than two decades. The accumulated value of the assets owned by Yoo and his two sons and two daughters is estimated at over 240 billion won.

Prosecutors describe a pyramid-like structure of dozens of subsidiaries under the holding company I-One-I Holdings. They say Yoo has no stake in any of the subsidiaries but is the de facto mastermind of all the operations. The basis of all the business was the bank accounts or other assets of the sect’s believers.

Scandal touched the sect in 1987 when the bound and gagged bodies of 32 people were found stacked in two piles in a factory in Yongin, Gyeonggi. All of the dead were either workers at a handicraft manufacturer called Odaeyang or members of their families. Twenty-seven years later, it is still a mystery whether the people committed suicide or were murdered.

The owner of the factory, Park Sun-ja, was a defector from the Salvation Sect who set up her own cult, which she also named Odaeyang.

Park and Yoo were found to have made hundreds of millions of monetary transactions with each other, which led prosecutors to suspect Yoo was connected to the deaths. But no direct link was ever found.

In August 1991, Yoo was sentenced to four years in jail for “habitual fraud under the mask of religion.” The court said he embezzled almost 120 million won in funds collected by Guwonpa believers for the sect.



Business cults unique to Korea

According to Professor Tark, the phenomenon of “new religions pursuing profit through corporate activities” is unique to Korea. That conclusion is based on his comparison of the classification of new religious movements in the United States and Europe over the past 120 years and a similar study of modern Korea by Lee Kang-oh, head of the private Korean New Religion Research Center.

Tark is one of three sons, all religion experts, of Tark Myung-hwan, a renowned religious researcher who spearheaded a move to combat crazy cults. He was murdered by a religious zealot in 1994. The scope of his research included the Salvation Sect.

As Korea went through rapid social changes over a relatively short period - from colonialism to war, dictatorship and democracy - traditional religions had trouble keeping up with the chaos and insecurity, and the door was opened to ambitious shysters, according to Lee. They thrived by criticizing existing religions and offering salvation in a quicker or more direct way.

Personally, they became wealthy because of all the opportunities available in rapidly developing Korea, especially in the real estate market.

Lee, the research center head and an honorary professor of philosophy at Chonbuk National University, noted in his epic 1992 “Korea’s New Religion Almanac” that 200 of the 390 new religious bodies that came into existence between the 1960s and 1990s were born in the 1980s. He interpreted that as a sign that South Korea’s dictatorship stirred both political tensions and confusions that led to the weakening of traditional religions.

The messages of the new religions varied according to the spirit of the times, Tark says. “The emerging religions under the [Park Chung Hee] regime in the 1970s stood for anti-Communist,” he said. The theme shifted to salvation through wealth later.

“Money can guarantee the stability of religious activities and vise versa,” he says.

These days, members of the Salvation Sect deny that Yoo is their patriarch. But when prosecutors tried searching the sect’s 115-acre compound known as Geumsuwon in Anseong on the outskirts of Seoul, thousands of believers staged a rally for days at the gates, acting as human shields for Yoo. Some proclaimed they were willing to be martyred to protect Yoo.

Such kind of devotion is hard for ordinary people to understand. The experts say the adherents have devoted everything to the sect, from their personal lives and family ties to their private properties.

“The moment Yoo is caught and his empire collapses, the followers’ lives will be over,” says the housewife Lim Young-sook. “Many of them have nowhere else to live or any means to feed themselves. They have no choice but to believe.”

Tark says “depriving believers of everything” is one of many techniques used by cult leaders to maintain their obedience. Devotees have to be robbed of their personal decision-making abilities.

“You shouldn’t try to approach new religion issues with logic or common sense,” he says. “Cult leaders tend to take control of their followers by depriving them of everything. Believers are robbed of their decision-making ability by manipulative mind control. That’s why violence or any kind of far-from-common-sense action is possible and very dangerous.”

Tark warns that patriarch Yoo, who is still at large, has been able to maintain close ties with powerful figures in the corporate, political, government and media communities, and also the prosecution.

A “Yoo Byung-eun list,” which names people who have been photographed with the suspect, has been circulating.

“There are a lot of beneficiaries of what we may describe as ‘Yoo Byung-eun’ largesse out there and his wide human network is his insurance policy,” Tark says.

BY SEO JI-EUN[spring@joongang.co.kr]



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