I was practicing violin today, minding my own business, when this strange Asian college kid flung open the door to my practice room and asked if I wanted to volunteer for the Bible Crusade. Apparently this Korean pastor travels around the world holding these sermon sessions, and recruit local musicians wherever they go. I refused because I was busy next week and the week after, but the kid was persistent. I finally managed to shoo him away.
In fact, I saw this Bible Crusade thing before. They are everywhere in New York somehow, wearing orange shirts, handing out flyers and talking about pastor Park Ock Soo. What the hell is this stuff?
And also, can you pick up some tofu on the way home? We (which means you) are making김치찌개 tonight. I love you!
The Korean Fiancée
The Korean loves you too honey. That’s why your question jumps ahead of people who had been waiting for more than a year. (This question is not made up, by the way. The Korean Fiancée actually called and demanded that the Korean answer this question right away.)
First, a full disclosure: The Korean is a Presbyterian, but he did not really attend any church in Korea. He only started attending church in the U.S.
At any rate, the Korean himself got curious as well. He is sure that other New York-based readers have seen this stuff as well. Mostly Asian (almost certainly Korean, based on their looks) flyer-givers in orange shirt, taking over corners and muttering something about “Bible Crusade” and pastor Ock-Soo Park. In fact, the Korean sees these guys about once in two weeks or so on the way to work. So what the hell is this?
These are the kind of guys that the Korean is talking about.
(Image was edited to protect privacy, although it was available via Google.)
(Source withheld for obvious reasons.)
(Source withheld for obvious reasons.)
The simple answer is – these guys belong to an offshoot of Christianity that probably deserves the term “cult”. They are generally referred to in Korea as “Saviorists” (구원파), although their precise name is Association of Korean Christian Baptists (대한예수교침례회). In contrast, the name of the official Baptist organization is The Korea Baptist Convention. (기독교 한국 침례회) Christian Heresy Counseling Center, run by the Christian Council of Korea (which encompasses most Protestant faiths such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.,) has decreed that Saviorists are heretics. (The website of the Heresy Counsel Center also has a fascinating list and articles about those Christian sects that it considers heretics.)
Apparently, Saviorist movement started in the 1960s, when an American missionary named Dick York made Mr. Park a pastor through an informal mission. Mr. Park did not attend any established seminary. According to Mr. Park, Mr. York was a part of Shield of Faith Mission International. (Mr. York’s homepage is here.) The distinctive point in the Saviorist creed is that once you are saved by Christ, you no longer need to repent for your sins – because you are saved already. And the flip side of that logic is that if you continue admitting that you are a sinner (something that most Christians do every Sunday) you make yourself a sinner.
But the Korean does not really care about the finer points of theology. (Actually he does, but this post is not about that.) The term “cult” is deserved based not on faith, but on actions. So what about Saviorists that makes the Korean comfortable to call them a cult? Certainly, hitting up practice rooms around New York to recruit “volunteer” musicians sounds like a cult. (The Korean Fiancée spoke with her musician friends, and apparently these people went as far out as SUNY Stony Brook to recruit musicians.) The aggressive flyering (not just in Korea, but in New York!) feels like a cult.
Also, searching on Naver (Korea’s equivalent to Yahoo!) about Park Ock-Soo results in accusations of being cult plastered with harsh rebuke against such accusation and creepy adulations for Park. Park also sued a pastor who criticized him as a heretic which lasted four years, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Korea (where Park lost.) Death threats against a person who quit the church probably count towards being a cult as well. (The person later wrote a book titled: “Why Are Park Ock-Soo, Lee Yo-Han and Yoo Byeong-Eon Heretics?”)
But most intriguingly, they are implicated in the most classic cult behavior – mass suicide.
How are the people in orange connected to one of the most sensational news stories in Korea of the late 1980s? More after the jump.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 29, 1987.
The police was investigating a strange case. One couple in their 50s had seven children, all of whom worked at a company called Five Seas, Ltd. (오대양 주식회사). The company borrowed $500,000 (assuming $1 = KRW 1,000, a HUGE amount of money in 1987,) from the parents. Five Seas company only paid them the interest without paying the principal. When the parents went to the company to demand the money to be repaid, a number of company employees ganged up and physically assaulted them, causing serious injury.
Five Seas company represented itself as a mid-size company with an emphasis for employee welfare. Its business apparently was exporting hand-made crafts. The company also established day care center and nursing homes for its employees.
The police arrested eleven employees of the company, but a number of key employees ran off and disappeared. Later, the police received a tip that the employees were hiding in a company facility in Yong-In, Gyeonggi-do. On August 29, 1987, the police raided the facility. The police found 49 women and children at the facility, but not the top company officers they were looking for. But one female employee noticed that the ceiling of a room was caving in, unlike the way it was before. She notified another employee, and they climbed up to the attic on top of the room.
In the attic, there were 32 dead bodies. Most of them were found with their hands tied up and choked with a rope, and three men (presumably the ones who killed all others) hanged themselves.
(A lot of the description was lifted from the case file in the National Archives of Korea.)
This is now a distant memory in Korea, but in 1987 it was a sensation termed “Five Seas Incident” (오대양 사건). At the time, the police investigation revealed that Five Seas company was not a real company at all, but a cult led by a woman named Park Soon-Ja (who was one of the dead, along with her two sons and a daughter.) Park preached that the end was near, and they eventually had to offer themselves to god. Five Seas company recklessly borrowed money, both by posing as a legitimate company as well as by extorting its members. Five Seas cult ranked its members based on how much money they could bring into the cult, both with their own funds as well as whatever they could beg, borrow or steal.
Cult leader Park Soon-Ja (center) with her son (second from the left),
after winning a prize in a handcraft contest.
Click the source for many more pictures related to this case. (Source)
Click the source for many more pictures related to this case. (Source)
The police concluded that it was a mass suicide, but questions remained. Among them was: one of the key officers who practically ran the company (as far as it was posing as a real company) was missing. His whereabouts would be revealed four years later. On July 10, 1991, five former members of the Five Seas company came to the police, and confessed that prior to the mass suicide, they killed the missing key officer and one other person for “breaking the rules.” Sure enough, the police was able to recover two bodies from where the five led them. When asked why they came forward, they replied that their conscience compelled them to.
Former Five Seas members re-constructing the crime scene in 1991 (Source)
The police re-opened investigation to retrace the incident from the beginning and address all outstanding questions, such as: Was this really religiously motivated suicide, or did someone cause the death of the 32 for any other reason? Can we seriously believe that the murders who confessed that after four years because their conscience caught up to them? And why did the key officer of the Five Seas company have to be killed?
The last question provided the start of the thread that the police pursued. The key officer was running the company, which means he was in charge of the company’s money. The police reconstructed how much money the Five Seas company collected, and it was estimated to be up to $ 17 million (assuming $1 = KRW 1,000) – an astronomical sum in late 1980s Korea. Then the next logical question is: where did the money go?
This is where the link between the Five Seas company and the Saviorists began to emerge. Bulk of the money was traced to a company called Semo Corporation, led by a man named Yoo Byeong-Eon (유병언) whose side job was to be a pastor for a Saviorist church. (Does the name sound familiar?)
This was a big deal at the time, because Semo Corporation was a big company, mostly known for importing the tour cruise boats on the Han River in Seoul. (The Korean remembers riding those boats as well.) The investigation further revealed that Park Soon-Ja (the cult leader of the Five Seas) and most of her followers were originally from Yoo’s church.
With a crazy scenario like this, conspiracy theories were plenty. It was rumored that the 32 Five Seas cult people did not commit suicide, but was actually killed by Yoo’s henchmen because Five Seas was attracting unwanted attention and Yoo wanted to sever ties with them. There was also a rumor that a key official in the Chun Doo-Hwan dictatorship that ruled Korea in 1987 was a secret Saviorist, who helped the Semo Corporation grow and covered up the Five Seas’ ties to Semo when the suicide happened.
However, the investigation only concluded this much – Yoo was actually responsible for the former Five Seas murders to come forward, in order to distract the growing attention toward the tie between Five Seas and the Saviorist church. The 32 people indeed committed suicide, because there was no forensic evidence to suggest that they were murdered. However, Yoo was nonetheless indicted for fraud as he raised money from his followers in the Saviorist church for the purpose of doing “god’s work,” then proceeded to use that money for his company. He served four years in prison.
Pastor Park Ock-Soo (Source)
Now, back to the original point of this post – how does Park Ock-Soo fit into all this? As it turns out, like Park Ock-Soo, Yoo Byeong-Eon never attended a seminary either. Instead, Yoo also attended the makeshift school set up by Dick York and the Shield of Faith Mission International, alongside Park.
This is about as much as the Korean could gather from online research. No one knows for certain how deeply the Saviorists were involved in the Five Seas mass suicide (other than what is described above,) and it is not even clear whether Park Ock-Soo’s group is necessarily the same as Yoo Byeong-Eon’s group, since cults are usually a personality-driven affair. And of course, Park’s followers vigorously deny any such involvement by Park in Five Seas incident. Park himself stated that "Dick York is a great man. It would not be right if all of his students are criticized because one of them did wrong."
At any rate, this whole thing is simply full of intrigue.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.