Sun Myung Moon, the Korean-born founder of the Unification Church and self-proclaimed messiah who built a secretive global business empire that sells cars, guns, newspapers and sushi, has died. He was 92.
Moon died in the early hours of this morning at a church-owned hospital in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, the church said in an e-mailed statement. On Aug. 14, he had entered the intensive-care unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in Seoul with complications from a cold and pneumonia.
To thousands of followers, Moon was the benevolent “True Father” who was asked by Jesus to complete his unfinished mission on Earth. To detractors, he was a megalomaniacal cult leader who exploited disciples though brainwashing, separated them from their families and used their labor to amass a personal fortune.
“I don’t think there will be any individual who will take his place,” said Frederick Sontag, a former professor of religion at Pomona College in California who studied Moon’s organization, in a 2007 interview. “He is too powerful a figure.”
Moon arrived in the U.S. from South Korea in 1971 and gained attention when he came to the defense of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis two years later. A staunch anti-Communist who had been imprisoned in North Korea, he organized “God Loves Richard Nixon” rallies on Capitol Hill and met with the president in the White House.
He built his U.S. following by touring the country and delivering fiery speeches translated from Korean into English. He deployed eager young acolytes to street corners, where they sold flowers and candles and became known as Moonies.
“How does a preacher with murky credentials draw a crowd in jaded New York City?” Time magazine asked in September 1974 after 25,000 of Moon’s followers packed Madison Square Garden. “Simple. You field a corps of 2,000 tireless, polite young buttonholers who spend weeks offering people free tickets. Invest $300,000 on publicity for the one-night stand -- far more than Billy Graham has ever spent for an eight-day crusade.”
Madison Square Garden was also the site of one of Moon’s most famous undertakings, a mass wedding of 2,075 couples in 1982.
Moon faced widespread criticism for his aggressive recruitment practices. Former Unification Church members said they were lied to -- a church-approved practice known as heavenly deception -- deprived of sleep and beaten by church followers. Many turned over their savings to Moon’s organization.
The U.S. government also took aim at the preacher. In 1978, a congressional committee found evidence of Moon’s ties to Korean intelligence agencies and concluded that his organization “systematically violated U.S. tax, immigration, banking, currency and Foreign Agents Registration Act laws.”
He was convicted in May 1982 of failing to report $162,000 in income on his tax returns and served 13 months in the medium-security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and a halfway house. Moon claimed that the prosecution was political retribution for his earlier support of the unpopular Nixon.
Moon had problems in other countries as well. He was banned from entering the UK from 1995 until 2005 on the grounds that his presence wouldn’t be “conducive to the common good for reasons of public order.”
The evangelist was also labeled a bigot. He referred to homosexuals as “dirty, dung-eating dogs” and said Jews were to blame for the Holocaust because they betrayed Jesus by handing him over to the Romans. He claimed to have personally helped the spirits of Hitler and Stalin become “reborn as new persons.”
The number of Moon’s followers was the subject of conjecture throughout his life. In the 1970s, the church said it had 600,000 adherents worldwide, including 300,000 in South Korea, 200,000 in Japan and 30,000 in the U.S. The church’s official worldwide membership in 1981 rose to 3 million, a figure most experts dismissed. In 1999, the New York Times estimated the number of Moon’s followers in the U.S. at about 3,000.
Through a web of companies, foundations and non-profit organizations, Moon had controlled the Washington Times newspaper; the United Press International wire service; Washington-based Atlantic Video, one of the biggest independent broadcasting facilities in the U.S.; the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
An avid fisherman, he ran a lobster operation in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and owned True World Foods, a Chicago-based company that, according to a 2006 Chicago Tribune investigation, supplied raw seafood to more than 75 percent of the nation’s 9,000 sushi restaurants.
In South Korea, through his Seoul-based Tongil Group, he owned drugmaker Ilhwa Co., which in turn owned the Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma soccer team; marble and granite slab supplier Ilshin Stone Co.; Yongpyong Resort featuring a golf course, water park, ski slope and deer farm; and the Seil Travel agency; the Korean-language daily newspaper Segye Times; and Pyeonghwa Motors, which opened North Korea’s first car-assembly plant in 2002.
Moon remained politically connected through ownership of the Washington Times, which he established to counter what he saw as the liberal bias of the Washington Post.
He caused a stir in 2004 over a ceremony in the Dirksen Senate Office Building attended by several members of Congress in which he declared himself the messiah. One congressman, Danny K. Davis, wore white gloves and carried a pillow containing two crowns that were placed on the heads of Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han. After the event was reported, some lawmakers said they had been unaware the ceremony was connected to Moon.
Church membership waned in the 1990s as more young people turned to evangelical Christianity, Sontag said. Moon played down the name Unification Church, opting to use the Universal Peace Federation as the flagship for his global empire. In 1996 he officially changed the name of the church to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Moon Yong Myung was born on Jan. 6, 1920, into a family of farmers in what now is North Korea, according to an official biography. He would change his name to Sun Myung Moon upon reaching adulthood. As a boy, he studied at a Confucian school. His parents converted to Christianity when he was about 10, and he was raised as a Presbyterian.
On Easter morning in 1935, according to Moon, he was praying in the Korean mountains when Jesus appeared and asked him to “complete the task of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth and bringing peace to humankind.” Moon would spend the next 10 years studying and praying before he developed his own theology.
In 1941, Moon graduated from high school and moved to Japan, which occupied Korea at that time, to study electrical engineering. That same year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II.
Moon joined the movement for Korean independence, working with fellow Christians and communists. He was eventually imprisoned by the Japanese for his activities.
In 1943, Moon returned to Korea and married Choi Sang Il, a Presbyterian. He was arrested by the occupation government in 1944 for his role in the anti-Japanese underground. He refused to confess and was released.
By 1945 Moon had developed the core of his theology. Called the Divine Principle, it held that Jesus failed to restore human beings to their intended position as God’s “perfect children” because he was crucified before he could marry and have children.
Moon preached that Eve had sex with the devil in the Garden of Eden. Jesus, according to Unification Church teachings, was supposed to be the second Adam who would create a perfect family. When Jesus died before marrying, he redeemed mankind spiritually but not physically. That task would be left to the “True Parents” -- Moon and his wife -- who would link married couples and their families to God through them.
After World War II and the division of the Korean peninsula, Moon continued to preach. Charged with disturbing the social order, he was imprisoned by the Communist authorities that controlled the northern portion, tortured, thrown out of the prison and left to die before he was rescued by some of his followers. He was arrested again in 1948 and sentenced to five years of hard labor in prison.
Moon was freed by the United Nations forces that entered North Korea in July 1950, only hours before he was to be executed, according to the church. He moved to South Korea to resume evangelical work, and his wife filed for divorce.
On May 1, 1954, Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which came to be known as the Unification Church. According to the church’s official history, Moon was jailed several times by South Korean authorities under suspicion that he was a North Korean agent and was running sex orgies.
He married his second wife, Han Hak Ja, a member of the church, in March 1960. Known to followers as the “True Mother,” she gave birth to 14 children, including a daughter who died in infancy. One son, Heung Jin, died in a 1984 car crash at age 17. Another son, Young Jin, died in 1999 of an apparent suicide and a third, Hyo Jin, died in 2008 from a heart attack.
Moon embarked on his first world tour in 1965, visiting 40 countries. Three years later, he founded the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, the first of several such groups he created during the Cold War.
He kicked off his first U.S. tour at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center in February 1972.
As Moon’s popularity grew, anti-Moon organizations began forming around the country. Defectors told tales of non-stop indoctrination at church-run camps, including yelling and physical abuse by instructors. Recruits weren’t allowed time alone; someone even accompanied them to the bathroom.
They were told they could voluntarily leave the next day. When that day came, they were told the buses weren’t running until the following day. Before long, they were praying to portraits of Moon and his wife.
Not all of the coercion was hostile. Moon’s followers employed a technique known as “love bombing,” in which new recruits were showered with affection, often from members of the opposite sex.
The church conceded that converts underwent dramatic changes but denied using nefarious methods.
In 1976, Moon held a rally at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx commemorating the U.S. bicentennial. He predicted an overflow crowd of 200,000, perhaps as many as 1 million. About 27,000 people attended.
Concern about Moon’s organization increased after November 1978, when more than 900 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple cult in Guyana, died after drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch.
The controversy over Moon’s practices died down after the 1980s as membership waned and he focused on his business interests outside the U.S., such as a newspaper in Argentina and an estimated 1.7 million acres of real estate in Brazil and Paraguay. He built a compound in Uruguay.
He grew increasingly disillusioned with the U.S., calling it “a Hell on Earth” that was “heading for destruction.”
In later years, he focused on one of his pet projects: a proposal to build a $200 billion tunnel under the Bering Strait to connect North America with Asia. He also was a proponent of Korean unification, traveling to North Korea in 1992 to meet the aging leader Kim Il Sung. The Seoul government accused him of “causing a split in national opinion.”
Moon’s successor is in doubt. In 1992, he elevated his wife to his level “horizontally,” though some members questioned whether she can maintain the church and its businesses. A son, Kook Jin, a Harvard graduate known as Justin Moon, who runs Kahr Arms, a U.S. gunmaker, has been cited as a potential successor.
Sontag, the religion professor who died in 2009, once met with Moon and asked him who would run his organization when he’s gone.
“I will continue to lead the church from the spirit world,” Moon replied.