Newsweek magazine April 26, 1976
Each Sunday, a group of twenty men and women gathers for worship on the top floor of a modern office building in downtown Seoul, South Korea. Bodies shaking, they weep between prayers and raise clenched fists to the ceiling. They are members of the Jehovah’s Saeil (New Work) Church, praying for the resurrection of their founder, the Rev. Yi Yu-Song, who drowned four years ago. Across town, followers of the Church of the East twist their bodies from east to west in an imitation of solar movement. They pray in front of a curtain that conceals their leader, Noh Yong-Gu, who they believe is linked to God. Six miles outside Seoul, in his Castle of the Millennium, Park Tae-Seon conducts an emotional service with drums beating and people shouting. His 30,000 followers believe that Park, 61, is the second Messiah and a personification of one of the olive trees mentioned in the Bible.
Yi Yu-Song, Noh Yong-Gu and Park Tae-Seon are three of a dozen self-proclaimed messiahs who have appeared in South Korea since the Korean War. Only the Rev. Sun Myung Moon has so far brought his message to the U.S., but other leaders, ranging from a 68-year-old man who claims to he the “Second Son of God” to Yi Myong-Hui, a youth called Baby Jesus by his admirers, are drawing Korean converts every day. Tahk Myeong-hwan, director of the New Religions Research Institute, has found at least 302 religious sects flourishing around Seoul, including 64 associated with the Christian faith; estimates of their followers run as high as 1.4 million.
Lately, however, some of the new cults have come under suspicion. One of the self-styled redeemers is in prison serving a five-year sentence for swindling; two others are being sought by the police for similar crimes. Last February, Ku In-Hoe, leader of the 2,000-member Heavenly Gospel Tabernacle Church, was arrested on suspicion of selling $1,000 “absolution tickets” to 800 followers (he died in police custody). The incident touched off a national scandal and prompted public calls for action. “Many of these new religions are sowing seeds of social unrest,” stormed a pro-government newspaper, the Kyunghyang Shinmun. “They should be vigorously investigated not only to uproot social evils, but also to purify whole religious circles.”
Most of Korea’s new religions blend Christianity with Asian mysticism; they tend to promise immediate salvation and complete economic security. Their followers, for the most part, are farmers, factory workers and small merchants, largely from uneducated, lower-income classes. Many of them are peasants who have moved to the area around Seoul. “Koreans are vulnerable because they have a strong shamanistic heritage,” says Samuel Sha-hoon Shin, a respected theologian at Seoul National University. “This particular trait has been fed over the centuries by recurring foreign invasions and economic hardships, encouraging people to depend on supernatural power for salvation.”
Soap: The most successful of the new religions is the Rev. Park Tae-Seon’s Olive Tree Cult, with 10,000 more followers than the Rev. Moon has in Korea. Park has three communes outside Seoul and Busan that include apartments, schools, factories, farms and a profitable soap industry (Park recently blessed a shipment of 50,000 cakes of Zion Soap). His communards circulate their own currency and are policed by their own authorities. The Castle of the Millennium commune even has its own cemetery, dotted with hundreds of graves.
Like Moon, Park has drawn charges of brainwashing, mistreating his young followers and profiteering. Tahk Myeong-hwan of the New Religions Institute recently submitted a report to the government that recommends that criminal charges be filed over alleged labor exploitation by the Moon and Park cults. He also called for an investigation of rumors about their alleged ritual sex and a probe of possible tax evasions. Korea’s established churches have not been particularly vigorous in attacking the new religions; they have published a few critical statements but nothing more. The government newspaper, The Seoul Shinmun, claims it is the “established churches with their divisiveness and corruption that have helped bring about a plethora of new sects.” It called upon the churches to mount an evangelical campaign to expose the new religions.
Meanwhile, the followers of the new religions grow more avid each day as new prophets replace the old ones. Ahn Duk-Won, 29, says he became a Park follower after seeing Park make the stiff arms of a dead man move. “God sent Moses and Noah during Old Testament time to work miracles,” explained the ex-farmer, “but now He has given us the Reverend Park.”