Grace Road Church’s Dream Life in Fiji Threatens to Fall Apart

SEOUL—Authorities in Fiji have smashed a South Korean cult that threatened to take over the South Pacific nation’s economy, arresting four of its leaders and sending two of them back to Korea.

The crackdown on the Grace Road Church shocked its 400 Korean and foreign adherents, who had moved to Fiji after being warned of an apocalypse about to annihilate South Korea. They submitted to regular thrashings, some of them caught on camera, in what their founder, a middle-aged woman named Shin Ok-su, claimed were needed to knock the devil out of them.

Shin was expelled back to Korea, arrested for child abuse, assault and false imprisonment, and sentenced to six years in prison in 2019, but the church survived until Fijian authorities this week rounded up church members in a drive to stamp out the influence of a cult that’s been madly buying up Fijian companies and property. The church, founded in South Korea in 2002, decided in 2014 that Fiji, an archipelago with a population of slightly less than one million, was “the center of the world.”

Fijian authorities turned a blind eye as the church took over construction companies, beauty salons, restaurants and much else, establishing a mini-conglomerate called GR Group, modeled after the chaebol or conglomerates that dominate Korea.

The top leaders of the church allegedly controlled their adherents by confiscating passports, forcing some to live in virtual imprisonment, ordering them to work on church-owned projects and beating them periodically into submission.

It was not until a new government took over early this year that authorities recognized the seriousness of the inroads the cult had made into Fijian life and decided to clean house. Fiji’s previous prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, six years ago gave Grace Road an award for business excellence, recognizing it had “invested heavily in Fiji.”

Now the seven top leaders of the church are listed as “prohibited immigrants” while authorities search for two of them, including Daniel Kim, son of founder Shin Ok-su. In charge of the church’s sprawling business interests, he remains on the lam while the GR Group, “very enraged by all the lies,” claims to have been “working proudly as owners.”

All the stories of “passport confiscation, forced labor, incarceration and violence,” said GR Group, were “unspeakable lies” created by “those who wish to slander us.”

A strong leader with a stirring message resonates deeply in the Korean psyche.

Rev. Tim Peters

The grip that the church has held on Fiji, however, epitomized the rise of Korean cults in recent years in the face of efforts by mainstream churches to wipe out instinctive adherence to shamanism, a form of folk religion with origins deep in Korean history.

Koreans are “likely to worship different gods because they have a spiritual hunger for salvation,” said Chang Sung-eun, a woman working in Seoul. “Christianity had a lot of impact on Korean mentality and spirituality. Koreans are already spiritually crazy. The Christianity brought by westerners created the extremism in cults.”

Michael Breen, a former member of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church which has been labeled a cult, told The Daily Beast that physical contact and strict teachings were often accepted by the members of Korea’s wild array of modern churches.

“There is a tradition of laying on of hands—called ‘ansu kido’ in Korean—which the Koreans can get over-enthusiastic about,” he said “Weird to outsiders. But okay for insiders until they leave and decide they do not like it.”

Besides Moon’s unification church—also known as the Moonies—the greatest cult-like religion to emerge from Korea in recent years is the Shincheonji Church, whose members were blamed for spreading COVID-19 to South Korea after attempting to win converts in Wuhan, the Chinese city from which the COVID virus originated in 2019.

“The reason for so many new religions among Koreans is that a) there is real freedom of religion in Korea even compared to Christian countries,” said Breen, a long-time businessman in Seoul. “That’s one reason they thrive. People come up with all sorts of interpretations and shifts in theology and practice.”

Like Moon’s Unification Church, smaller cult-like groupings feel the urge to expand overseas in the same spirit as Korean big business and K-pop. Blind adherence to the dictates of a single leader is characteristic of Korean life.

Discipline, however, is not always easy to enforce when foreigners are caught in the web. Four years ago, the physical abuse inflicted by church leaders was exposed when a young American woman sneaked out the Grace Road church building, got to a phone and reported that the church had seized her passport and cut her off from her family.

Had the woman been caught, she likely would have faced “ground thrashings,” severe beatings inflicted before all the members. A Korean court, in sentencing founder Shin, said her victims “suffered helplessly from collective beatings and experienced not only physical torture but also severe fear and considerable mental shock.”

Shin’s son, Daniel Kim, who has so far eluded arrest, left no doubt GR Group will fight hard against deportation to South Korea, which could lead to trials and even jail terms, and also continue to battle for its business empire. Grace Road, he said, was “in compliance with all laws and regulations.”

Kim boasted that the church had gotten a court order barring deportation of two of the seven whom authorities want to send back to Korea and laughed at the failure to find him and one of the others. (The seventh has already left Fiji.)

“I’m here,” he told the media in the Fiji capital of Suva. “If I did wrong, you come and arrest me,” Why did you describe us as criminals?” Grinning, waving his arms, he asked, “Do I look like a runner?” And, “If I’m a runner, do I need to come in front of the media?”

Kim also took issue with the definition of “cult” as applied to Grace Road, whose members he said believed in God, not idols.

The Rev. Tim Peters, a Protestant pastor in Seoul with a long background working with North Korean defectors, placed the rise of Grace Road in the context of “the 5,000-year history of Korea.”

“A strong leader with a stirring message resonates deeply in the Korean psyche,” Peters told The Daily Beast.

Charisma helps. “A congregation’s appetite for an emotionally stirring sermon often eclipses a congregant’s individual spiritual growth,” Peters said. “Joining a new religious movement that has radical doctrines sometimes fulfills a need for young adults to break free from their parents’ or grandparents’ suffocating spiritual traditions.”

Chang Sung-eun explained the appeal of Grace Road more simply. “Koreans are passionate and energetic,” she said. “They have a strong yearning for salvation. They believe somehow, ‘God will save me.’ That’s the baseline. They tend to fall victim to pastors and ministers who have strong disciplinary policies.”

The Grace Road parishioners marooned on a paradise island may need to return to Korea in search of an even newer form of salvation if their cult is badly damaged by the Fijian crackdown.


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