Obit Desk

The Strange Life of Reverend Sun Myung Moon

The bizarre tycoon and church leader never lived to see his dream of a reunited Korea.

Alex Wong/Newsmakers
Alex Wong/Newsmakers

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and messenger of Jesus Christ, built a transcontinental business empire that rivaled his Unification Church in scope and power. Moon, who died Monday at the age of 92, managed to cultivate friendships with world leaders like George H.W. Bush, even though millions of worshippers, some of whom Moon blessed in colorful — some might say wacky — mass wedding ceremonies, called the church leader and his wife "father" and "mother" with cult-like intensity. But the fervently anti-communist Moon never managed to figure out North Korea, becoming one of the biggest individual investors of the authoritarian, atheist land of his birth even as he failed to change it.

Born in 1920, Moon said that when he was 15, Jesus appeared to him and told him to take on an unspecified "special mission on Earth." He concluded he needed to "go to Japan and to America so that I can let the world know the greatness of the Korean people," according to his autobiography. After graduating from middle school, Moon moved to Japan to study. In the autobiography, As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen, published in English in 2010, Moon tries to show how he suffered for his cause. Active in the Korean independence movement in Japan, Moon could not "even remember the number of times I was taken into custody by the police, beaten, tortured, and locked in a cell. Even under the worst torture, however, I refused to give them the information they sought."

Returning to Korea, Moon’s preaching and proselytizing caught the attention of authorities, who arrested him for being a spy for the South Korean government and for "disturbing the social order," sentencing him to five years in a labor camp in 1948. "In prison, the authorities beat me endlessly and demanded that I confess my crimes," Moon wrote. "Even as I was vomiting blood and seemed on the verge of death, I never let myself lose consciousness … [I] prayed with confidence, ‘God, don’t worry about me. Sun Myung Moon is not dead yet. I won’t let myself die in such a miserable way as this.’ I was right."

The Korean War broke out while Moon was still in the camp. The day before he was scheduled to be executed, Moon claimed, the U.S. military attacked. "The high walls around the prison began to fall … At around two o’clock in the morning on the next day, I walked calmly out of Heungnam Prison with dignity," he wrote.

Moon returned to South Korea and founded the Unification Church in 1954; a spokesperson for the church said that the roof of Moon’s first dwelling in South Korea was made out of ration boxes. "Korea was terribly poor, so they decided to do business" to create revenue and support the mission work of the church, the spokesperson said, adding that in "the early days of the church, they would paint pictures of U.S. servicemen and their families, and sell them to earn funds."

Moon quickly expanded to tools and machine parts; in 1963, the budding tycoon founded the Tongil (Korean for "unification") Group, which soon extended into construction, resorts, and weapons, with the subsidiary Tongil Heavy, which was sold off in 1998. Most of the companies that Tongil runs are privately traded, making numbers difficult to come by; Forbes reported in April 2010 that Tongil Group’s assets "are said to total $1.5 billion."

As his business empire grew, Moon positioned himself in the campaign to stop the spread of communism, which he saw as a "godless ideology that tried to dominate man and take away their connection from their heavenly parents," according to the church spokesperson. He founded the International Federation for Victory over Communism in 1968, which reached a membership of more than 4 million in South Korea, according to a church-affiliated website. In 1985, Moon funded a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, entitled "The End of the Soviet Empire." He even became something of a media mogul, creating and sponsoring outlets to help preach his views. Moon founded the conservative newspaper the Washington Times in 1982; the Unification Church also runs News World Communications, which owns the once-prominent newswire UPI. Moon reportedly spent more than $1.7 billion on the Washington Times.

No stranger to delusions of grandeur, Moon declared his ambition to rule the world, according to his obituary in the Washington Post; Time quoted him in 1976 as saying, "The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world." Some of his flights of fancy — such as his claim to be the Messiah — proved too much even for his supporters. "[On] any given day there’s about 84 Messiahs roaming around the world. [The question is] who has the best practices," says Antonio Betancourt, the director of the office of peace and security affairs at the Universal Peace Federation International, a Unification Church-affiliated organization, who says he’s been with Reverend Moon since 1974.

Moon often sought to parlay his religious and business interests into political ones. He met privately with then Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1990. But North Korea was more difficult. In the late 1980s, North Korea and the communist militant group the Japanese Red Army plotted to kill Moon, according to Betancourt and church documentation. Undeterred, Moon sought an audience with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, hoping to "prevent war from occurring on the Korean peninsula," Moon wrote in his autobiography. "Reverend Moon, foreseeing that the wave of collapse beginning in the Soviet Union would stretch all the way to North Korea, believed it was his mission to take care of the situation," wrote Bo Hi Pak, a top aide to Moon, in his book Messiah: My Testimony to Rev. Sun Myung Moon, published in English in 2002. According to Betancourt, who says he been to North Korea roughly 17 times, former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, a friend of Kim Il Sung’s, helped arrange the meeting, which took place in Pyongyang in 1991.

Moon writes somewhat breathlessly about Kim Il Sung, whom he apparently saw as a charming, good-natured man who just happened to run one of the world’s most repressive police states. "We were like brothers who were meeting for the first time after a long separation," Moon wrote in his autobiography. In 1991, North Korea had yet to test its first nuclear weapon, and Moon claims he proposed North Korea agree to a declaration of denuclearization. Kim "responded with candor," wrote Moon, quoting the North Korean leader as saying, "Think for a moment. Who am I going to kill by making nuclear weapons? Kill my own people? Do I look like that kind of person?"

The Unification Church claims that the summit helped defuse tension on the Korean peninsula in the lead up to the Korean nuclear crisis of the early 1990s, when Pyongyang announced that it planned to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). "We averted war," Betancourt told me. "If Reverend Moon hadn’t engaged there would have been a war between North and South Korea, and the United States would have been involved."

Whether that’s true or not, Moon did use his foothold in the country, as he had in China, Uruguay, and Japan, to expand his business empire. The summit led the way for Moon to open Pyonghwa Motors, North Korea’s only joint-venture automobile factory, and the first, if not the only joint-venture allowed to put up billboards in Pyongyang.

Moon continued to expand his business ties after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. For Moon’s 80th birthday in 2000, Kim Il Sung’s son and heir Kim Jong Il reportedly sent a greeting card and an unspecified amount of rare wild ginseng, according to Unification Church officials. In 2009, Pyonghwa Motors even recorded a profit. A Moon-affiliated organization also owns the Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang, one of the nicest hotels in the country open to foreign visitors. (One reviewer on the travel site Trip Advisor enthused "It really looks like a hotel!") Moon was even allowed to build a church in North Korea, where visiting Unification Church delegates can pray in when they visit the country. The amount of money Moon invested in North Korea is unknown; Betancourt guesses $50 million.

The Unification Church appears to have maintained good contacts with Pyongyang; Moon’s son Hyung Jin was one of the few foreign guests at Kim Jong Il’s December funeral. As for North Korea, now ruled by the twentysomething Kim Jong Un, it seems no closer or further from collapse than it has been for decades. What’s clear, though, is that unless he does turn out to be the Messiah after all, Reverend Moon won’t be around to see what happens next.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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