A self-made man, a self-proclaimed messiah

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A self-made man, a self-proclaimed messiah


Unification Church founder Rev. Moon Sun-myung died yesterday at the age of 92 and his body was taken to the church’s Cheongshim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi. His funeral will be held Sept. 15. Provided by Segye Ilbo

The late Rev. Moon Sun-myung was a self-made man who built the Unification Church out of the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War into a global religion and formidable business empire.

He established dozens of businesses around the world and friendships with powerful world leaders, like U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. Moon even formed brotherly ties with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in two visits to Pyongyang.

The self-declared messiah was known for having followed a strict work regimen all his life without ever taking time off.

Moon, a North Korean refugee who was jailed and tortured by both Japanese and North Koreans and who also did prison time in the United States for tax evasion, was a self-proclaimed “controversial person.”

The most controversial part of his life was his massively successful cult following in America, which mushroomed in the hippie period of the 1970s.

Thousands of Americans joined, giving up normal lives for church work, which was often begging for spare change in public places. The money went to the church.

Moon himself became famous for arranging marriages among his acolytes, who often were strangers, and holding group weddings in venues like New York City’s Madison Square Garden. While his followers referred to him as “True Father,” critics said the followers were brainwashed, labeling them “Moonies.”

The church claims to have millions of followers in countries around the world, but experts say the real number is far less.

Born January 6, 1920 in the North Korean province of North Pyongan, Moon grew up in a farming family during Japanese colonization. His parents converted to Presbyterianism, and Moon became a Sunday school teacher and immersed himself in Biblical studies.

Moon claimed to have met Jesus Christ in these years as a teenager.

He then spent three-years studying in Japan at Waseda University from 1941-43 and was arrested shortly after his return to Korea. He was tortured by the Japanese occupation government for alleged anti-Japanese activities. In 1944, he married his first wife, Choi Sun-kil, with whom he had one son. They divorced in 1957.

After liberation, Moon was further persecuted for his religious teachings in the Communist North, imprisoned and tortured in 1946 and arrested again two years later and sentenced to five years of hard labor at the extermination-style prison camp at Hungnam.

The camp was liberated by UN and U.S. forces in 1950 during the Korean War. Moon defected alongside other war refugees to the southern port city of Busan.

That was not his last imprisonment. In the 1950s, Moon was again jailed in South Korea for allegations that he was a North Korean agent. The charges were dropped. Ten years after moving to the United States in 1971, Moon was convicted in 1982 by a U.S. federal court of willfully filing false federal income tax returns between 1973-75 and sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $13,000. He served 13 months and was released early for good behavior.

“I have been unjustly imprisoned six times in my life, and at times I was beaten so hard that the flesh was torn from my body,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, “As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen.”

“Today, though, not even the slightest wound remains in my heart,” he wrote. “Wounds easily disappear in the presence of true love.”

In 1954, Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity in Seoul, known as the Unification Church. The church’s beliefs are based on the Bible but are tolerant to interfaith activities.

In the 1970s, Moon expanded his church across the United States and sent missionaries to countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania. He faced a backlash when he encouraged tolerance of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

Moon is also the founding chairman of the church’s multi-billion dollar business empire, Tongil (or Unification) Group, which was established in 1963.

The conglomerate, currently headed by one of his seven sons, Moon Kook-jin, runs numerous businesses ranging from manufacturing to pharmaceuticals and construction.

Moon founded an international media corporation based in Washington in 1976, News World Communications, which launched dailies like the Washington Times in 1982 and the Segye Ilbo in Seoul in 1989. The wire service United Press International was purchased by News World Communications in 2000.

The church also owns the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, and New York-based arms manufacturer Kahr Arms. The church has also invested in the arts, hospitals, schools and companies in North Korea, as well as other places.

Moon was active and in seemingly good health until last month. In March, he presided over a mass wedding of 2,500 couples in Cheongshim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, presented medals after the Peace Cup friendly football tournament in late July in Suwon, Gyeonggi and continued to lead massive services for his followers.

He is survived by his wife, Han Hak-ja, 69, whom he married in 1960. They had 13 children and more than 40 grandchildren.

By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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