Sun Myung Moon, The Early Years, 1920-53
By Michael Breen
The Second Israel
When he arrived home, the whole village came out to welcome him . "We saw your telegram saying you were coming on the ship that went down," they said. The ferry, the Kwon-non Maru, had hit a mine and sunk in the Korea Strait, and hundreds of passengers drowned. "They printed the names of the survivors in the paper but your name wasn't there."
"I didn't take the ship. I changed my mind," Moon said. He explained that he had bought a ticket for the ferry, but on the way he had such a strong premonition of danger that his legs went leaden. "I waited for the next one."
When she heard about the accident, his mother had been in such a panic that she ran to Jeongju for information, forgetting to put on her shoes. When she couldn't find his name on the list, she fainted. It was only when he sent another telegram that they knew he was safe.1 She had been so anxious that it was only after she came back home that she realized her foot was sore. This image of his mother rushing to Jeongju without her shoes struck him very deeply, and stayed with him through his life.2 "Is this how God loves his children?" he asked himself. How strong and natural a mother's love is. He considered how difficult it must have been for Jesus to go against his family in order to do God's will, and he hoped that his parents would not stand against his mission in the future. If they did, he would have to put his mission first. He had become practiced over the years in denying his own emotions in this way, cutting off his feelings when his heart pulled him away from God's will.
In November 1943, Sun-myung Moon married. According to custom, his bride, Choi Sun-kil, was found through arrangement between the couple's parents. For Koreans of this period, and even for many
|Choi Sun-kil, Moon's first wife (Pak Chong-hwa)|
modern young Koreans, the decision to marry comes first and the search for the partner follows. Given this, it's unclear why he decided at this point in his life that it was time to marry. He may have simply accepted his parents' suggestion that it was time, out of a natural Korean sense of filial piety. Or, additionally, he may have accepted because he saw marriage as the next stage of his spiritual path. The answer depends on the extent to which Moon had already developed his view of marriage as a profoundly religious relationship, the reconstruction, as it were, in his own life, of the relationship between Adam and Eve as it should have been. For, later, Moon would teach his followers that God-centered marriage is the central sacrament of the faith, that it is necessary for a full and Godly life, and is the therapeutic means by which sinful people can heal their spiritual and emotional scars. Man was made for woman and woman for man by divine design. A man who understands God's suffering heart should approach his wife as if she were God's lost and precious daughter, Eve, and vice-versa.
Four years his junior, Choi (pronounced Chay) was an attractive, intelligent girl with a strong character. Moon's cousins would consider this last attribute an understatement. Asked to describe her, one of them referred to a saying about the alleged intensity of the Choi clan: "If Choi sits on a blade of grass nothing will grow on the spot for three years. She is the Choi of Chois. She is stubborn and headstrong. Once she's decided a certain way, she doesn't give in."3 Her family was relatively well-to-do and were members of the Jaegun Church, a fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in Cheolsan, North Pyong-an Province. The Jaegun (Reconstruction) Church believers claimed that Satan had taken control of the established churches, and had no tolerance for other denominations.4 Moon nevertheless invited Rev. Lee Ho-bin, the leader of the Jesus Church to officiate.5 He came up by train from Pyongyang, and conducted the wedding ceremony in the courtyard of her family's house. The couple spent their wedding night at Moon's family's home in Sangsa-ri and, according to one Moon cousin, she fell ill. The villagers were not impressed with the bride who got sick on the first day of her married life.6
|Lee Ho-bin, first head of the Jesus Church (Lee Ho-bin)|
Meanwhile, the war in the Pacific was intensifying, and more students were being graduated early to go to the front line. As an engineering graduate, Moon was exempt from active military duty, but was required to find work with a company contributing to the war effort. He had arranged a job with the Mansho Electric Company in Hailar in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, near the Mongolian-Russian border.7 But, after several weeks in Seoul, he changed his plans and staved in the capital, where he took a job as an electrical engineer with the Kashima-gumi Construction Company.8
The newlyweds settled in Heuksok-dong, renting a room from his old Jesus Church landlady, Lee Kee-bong.9 After the first year of their marriage, she was still not pregnant. But, instead of recriminating her, as might have been customary, he doted on her. "He loved her so much, we were all jealous," says Im Nam-sook, one of their landlady's daughters, who had been his Sunday school pupil years before."10 He wanted to build an inviolable love with her so that they could deeply love God as a couple. He knew that, because of the nature of the mission which lay before him, his wife would experience difficulties. He expected he would be away for long periods. In particular, he felt the first few years of the marriage would be fraught with spiritual struggle. "You should be able to make a living, in case something happens to me," he told her.
In late November 1944, a student friend from Tokyo, who was a Communist and who had visited him in Seoul, had been arrested trying to avoid conscription and Moon's name had come up during the police interrogation. Police came to his lodgings and searched his room. He was taken to the Kyong-gi Province central police station in central Seoul where ideological suspects were held.11
"You are a Communist," his interrogator charged.
"I am a Christian," he replied.
"Who are your friends in the Communist underground?"
"I am a Christian." The police beat him and began routine torture to force a confession. They held him down and poured water laced with red pepper down his nose. They pulled him up, tied his wrists behind his back, hoisted him in the air and thrashed him in a form of torture known as the 'airplane.' He refused to confess.
Mrs. Lee, the landlady, was allowed to visit him. He asked her to bring some hot sauce to induce diarrhea. Before the next torture session, he emptied his bowels and made himself vomit to empty his stomach so that the pepper water would pass straight through him. His wife, meanwhile, had contracted typhoid fever and went to her in-laws' home in north Korea to recuperate. Moon's mother came to Seoul when she heard he was in prison, and stayed at Mrs. Lee's house.
A week later, the police pulled in another friend, Kwak No-pil, a Christian who lived in Heuksok-dong and who had graduated from the same middle school. They were held in separate cells. Mrs. Lee came every day with food for the two prisoners. In the end, the police concluded the two men were Christians as they had claimed. Kwak was released and a week later, after sixty days in prison, Moon was also freed. He went straight to Kwak's house.
"I feel responsible because you were taken too," he told him. "No, no, they knew my name already," Kwak said. The two men talked over the experience and cried together.
Moon recovered quickly and returned to work. A few weeks later, when spring came, he visited his family in north Korea. His twenty-year-old cousin, Yong-gi, was being called up into the Japanese army and confided that he planned to desert.
"You don't need to. Don't worry," Moon told him. "In April, Germany will surrender and in August, Japan will be defeated. But you should not stay in the North afterwards. A cold culture is coming." Yong-gi was impressed, thinking that a college education somehow opened the way for someone to know such things. He was drafted in May and assigned to a base in Taejon, south Korea, and saw no action He did not understand the foreboding about Communism at the time, but he later took his cousin's advice and escaped south before the Communists solidified their rule in north Korea.12
In August, when the Japanese finally laid down their arms, there was jubilation in Korea. The people took to the streets and the hysteria of liberation took over. Sun-myung Moon marks the day of the Surrender, August 15 - celebrated as Liberation Day by Koreans - as the be ginning of his public ministry.13 Since his encounter with Jesus in 1935, he had spoken to no-one of his new understanding of God. Now the defeat of Japan meant he could act free from police surveillance. Korea was free from its colonial masters and the Christian nations had triumphed over fascist evil. The time was propitious.
One of the first things he did at the end of the war was to help several of the local Japanese residents escape. He heard that some of his friends were planning to get even with a Japanese policeman . He pleaded with them: "Japan is finished. It has failed. The country has lost its power and God will punish them. You don't need to take revenge.
They dropped the idea. He quietly advised many of the Japanese who remained in Heuksok-dong to leave, before they were hurt, and helped a few pack their belongings."14
Moon has said that he foresaw tremendous struggles ahead for Korea, and found it difficult to join in the independence celebrations. In a talk, he once described how he could not join in the jubilant shouts of "Mansei!" ('Long live Korea!' literally, Ten thousand years!') "My hands just would not go up," he said.15 Indeed, Korean elation was short lived. Within weeks, as the complexities of the political situation be came apparent, Korean leaders began to realize that, besides their own divisions, the major powers were not going to go away and leave them alone. Russian and American troops poured into the country taking the Japanese surrender. Stalin's forces had moved rapidly through Manchuria and into northern Korea. The Americans, more concerned with the future security of Japan than Korea, moved in quickly, fearful that the Russians might take the entire country. They met, as had been previously agreed, at the thirty eighth parallel just north of Seoul. The Cold War had come to Korea.
Exiled Korean nationalists were returning home. Some had fought the Japanese with the Russians, some with the Chinese Communists, others with the nationalist Chinese. Others came from Japan, Hawaii, and the mainland of the United States. Characteristically, no one faction predominated. Nor did the government-in-exile, which had been based in Shanghai, carry much weight. It had not been recognized by a single foreign government in its twenty-six years of existence.
There was similar factional diversity among political groups within Korea. In those first few weeks, the only semblance of political order was offered by the leftist-dominated People's Committees which had sprung up all across the country within days of the liberation. The American army, under orders to recognize no group nor person as the legitimate representative of the Koreans, set about dismantling them in the South. In their place, they established the American Military Government, which ruled for three years. In the North, the Soviets, facing strong opposition to Communist rule, were shrewd enough to appoint the chairman of the People's Committee of north Korea, Christian nationalist Cho Man-sik, as head of the interim government.
Later, the Americans and Russians would propose a four-power trusteeship for Korea, similar to that which governed Austria. In retrospect, it was the only chance the country had of remaining united, but the Koreans protested strongly against it and the superpowers dropped the idea. In the North, Cho was interned, and a young guerrilla leader, Kim Il-sung, rapidly assumed power under Soviet tutelage. Non-Communist nationalists began fleeing to the South. The two halves of Korea lurched inexorably towards permanent division. Within three years, separate governments would be set up in Seoul and Pyongyang.16
|North Korea's communist leader Kim Il-sung visits a power station in October 1949 (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pongyang)|
In this rapidly changing political situation, Moon sought the Christians who could accept his teaching. During the Japanese occupation, numerous spiritual groups had started and many, branded heretic by the Christian establishment, had received revelations which pointed to the return of Christ. Fearful of persecution from the Japanese authorities and from other Christians, they had worshipped separately and, in many cases, secretly. Among more orthodox Christians there was a rift between those who had obeyed Japanese orders to worship at Shinto shrines, and those who had refused and suffered greatly as a result. With such divisions, Moon thought, Christianity could not bring God's kingdom. He believe God wanted a spirit of harmony within Christianity as a foundation to end animosities between all religions and cultures. To this end, he hoped to first attract the spiritual groups to his teaching, and then seek to unite with the Christian establishment.
For his protection, he first sought to establish personal connections with people in high positions.17 As one of an educated elite in an undeveloped country, where advancement had traditionally been under patronage, this would have not been difficult. Church, family, school and home town provided him with strong connections to people whose help could prove to be crucial, particularly considering the uncertainty and instability of the country. Had the family not been estranged from his great-uncle, Moon Yoon-kook - who had links with the Christian independence figures who would assume power in south Korea - doors would have opened more easily.
|ev. Moon Yoon-kook, the Presbyterian minister at the Moon's local church, in 1918 seminary graduation portrait. (Presbyterian Seminary, Seoul)|
Shortly after the liberation, Moon went to north Korea and experienced a second and unexpected imprisonment. He was in Kwaksan-myon, not far from his home village, with his cousin Yong-gi. They went into a shop to buy an apple.
"What's this?" the shopkeeper asked, looking at the money he had just handed over.
"What do you mean?"
"Why are you trying to pass off false money?"
"It's not false. It's south Korean money," he said. The shopkeeper reported them to the police, and they were arrested and held for a week. By fortunate coincidence, the captain of police had been Sun-myung's elementary school teacher and he arranged their release, an instance of the timely benefits of patronage.
In October 1945, Moon and his wife moved from Heuksok-dong to the neighboring ward of Sangdo-dong. Their new home had one room and a kitchen, and was next to the company where he worked. Sun-kil was now pregnant. A son, Sung-jin, was born in April, 1946.18
Around the end of 1945, Moon started going to a church in Sangdo dong attended by several members of the Jesus Church, which he had attended as a student. The church was run by a small spiritual group led by a thirty-five-year-old minister called Kim Baek-moon.
Kim came from the southern city of Taegu. When he was seventeen, he went to stay with his brother, who was working in the northern port city of Chongjin. They found new lodgings in Hoeryong, where Kim was converted by the landlady, a middle-aged woman called Kim Nam jo. She was associated with the two charismatic preachers Baek Nam-ju and Lee Yong-do.19 After his conversion, Kim had enrolled in seminary in Seoul. A quiet, scholarly man, he was very devout.
His conversion in the 1930s coincided with a period of widespread spiritual activity in Korean Christian groups. Thousands had begun speaking in tongues and having revelations they could not understand. During revival meetings, many participants became ecstatic, as if drunk in the spirit. Kim observed that the phenomena, far from helping people, actually led many believers into immoral behavior and ultimately destroyed their life of faith. He questioned why the spirit of God came in this way. What was the purpose if it wreaked such havoc? After much prayer, he received an answer: the spirit came to prepare the way for the Lord, to cleanse the souls of those it came to, not to excite their senses. But, above all, it came because God wanted to find one man. To bring his kingdom, God needs to start with one person, like a new Adam. The purpose behind the spirit's coming was to make one perfect man.
Kim began to teach in the late 1930s. Most of those who came to hear him were Jesus Church members. He taught that Korea was the Israel of modern times, where the second coming of Christ would take place. In 1943, he started a retreat in Supchol-ri, in Paju County in the countryside north of Seoul. As Japanese oppression of Christians increased, he taught secretly. In September, 1945, the month after the end of the war, he formally established the Israel Jesus Church by setting up a church in Sangdo-dong, Seoul, and a small prayer center in Supchol-ri.20 Two men and ten women joined Kim at his retreat, where they lived a celibate life of faith. Two years later, he began a three-year seminary course.
|Kim Baek-moon's group around the time Moon began attending the services. Kim is in the top row wearing glasses. (Pak Kyong-do)|
Kim came to Seoul once a week to preach. The congregation was small, around fifty people, but comprised many intellectuals and other influential figures. If Kim ran into opposition from the Christian establishment for his heretical views, he would be able to call on powerful allies. One of the deacons was the wife of the owner of the Chosun Ilbo, Korea's main daily newspaper. Her daughter was one of the celibates at Kim's retreat.
Another woman among the faithful was the wife of Lee Bom-sok, who in 1948 was to become south Korea's first prime minister. She had joined the church through one of the elders who had been an elementary school friend. Lee himself was a Korean nationalist who had fought the Japanese for years in guerrilla warfare in Manchuria. A graduate of the Chinese military academies he had held a general's command in the Chinese army, and served on the staff of Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist Chinese leader. He had returned to Korea in 1945 with the backing of an American general, Albert C. Wedemeyer, who had been an advisor to Chiang.21 In 1946, Lee formed the Korea National Youth Association, which enjoyed the support of the Department of Defense in Washington, and which he envisioned as a basis for a future Korean Army. It grew rapidly and soon had 1,300,000 members nationwide. Pro-western and anti-Communist, its members supplemented the police and fought Communist guerrillas in those highly unstable times. When he became the prime minister, Lee was responsible for the redistribution of property held by the Japanese. He used this position to arrange the transfer of a firm in Inchon, the Aegyong Company, which made soap, perfume and candles, to Kim. The profits were used to fund the retreat.22
Moon took an unassuming role when he visited Kim's group, and did menial tasks. His wife did not approve of Kim Baek moon and did not attend the church with him. In fact, she complained of Moon's devotion.23 The other members began to recognize his deep spirituality.
Kim Yong-jin, who was one of the two men at the retreat, recalled: "Moon studied the Bible in Kim's church, as I did. The special thing about him was that although he had not received a formal theological education, he asked Rev. Kim many detailed questions, unlike the ordinary questions which the others asked." Hong Yi-sun, one of the female celibates, remembered: "Sun-myung Moon prayed very much." Another member, Pak Sul-nam, recalled that Moon once was praying in the church with the others when his head suddenly jerked so forcefully that it dented a plank of the wooden wall They saw it as evidence of his spirituality. Rev. Kim told his followers that Moon had profound spiritual wisdom. Several months after Moon joined the group, Kim placed his hand on Moon's head in blessing and said the wisdom of Solomon was with him.24
It was around this time that there occurred a phenomenon which Kim's later followers would consider to mark the real beginning of the history of the group. They say that on March 2, 1946, the Holy Spirit came down. Jesus is said to have appeared, and Kim began receiving continuous revelations concerning Korea's apparent role as the new chosen country. He received the revelation "You are Israel." He asked God what this meant, and received the answer that he had the mission in the future to spread the new teaching throughout the world.25
From the perspective of the Unification Church, Kim's recognition of Moon was the providential event, the precondition for the group to receive the Holy Spirit. Kim should naturally have recognized that Moon embodied the goal of Kim's search, and should have led his followers to understand that Moon was the new Adam, the Christ that they had been waiting for.26 He should have become Moon's leading follower. Moon would have provided the substantial core to the theology that Kim had developed in framework. Had this happened, Moon would have sought, through Kim's sect, to integrate the Christian spiritual groups, and then to create a revival within Christianity aimed at unifying the denominations. Such a movement, in Moon's plan, would have provided a basis to create harmony between the major religions.
From the perspective of Kim's followers, Moon failed his mission by going it alone. Clearly, had there been unity at the time of this encounter, both men would have fulfilled the goals and needs of the other: Moon, indeed, had the key to Kim's unanswered theological questions, and Kim had both the intellectual qualities to formulate Moon's thought, and the organization to begin the work of building bridges within the religious community.
What we do not know is how seriously Kim acknowledged Moon's 'wisdom.' Did he see Moon as a gifted student - clever, but inferior to himself? Or did he not even see Moon as a 'student'? After all his probing intensity, Moon was only able to make a part-time commitment He was not one of Kim's resident celibates, but was a married man with a job. On the other hand, was Kim perhaps too consumed by his own spiritual search to recognize the spirituality in Moon, which had impressed the other members of the group? Or did he indeed recognize it, and feel threatened by it? Or, in the end, was there just a predictable clash between two inspired men? Kim's group recalls that their leader asked Moon to leave. Whether this was actually the case and why, is not clear. Whatever the cause, Moon realized after a few months that he would not be able to work with Kim's group.27 He would have to continue alone.
The events that followed are unclear. The commonly accepted Unificationist story is that Moon received a revelation while he was out buying rice that he should go immediately to north Korea. The more detailed version has Moon on his way by truck to get rice with the intention of stopping by Supchol-ri to say goodbye to Kim, possibly to soften the break, when this experience occurred.
It is possible, however, that Moon may have wanted to go to north Korea anyway. With the Communists beginning to crack down on religious activity in the North, Moon felt a pressing sense of urgency to contact spiritual groups in north Korea which he believed had also been prepared by God to receive his teaching.28 In June 1946, Kim was planning to take some followers to north Korea for a revival meeting in Pyongyang. He did not want Moon to go along with him. "It is getting more difficult to travel north," he said. "Perhaps you should stay here. It may be dangerous."29 Moon decided to go anyway.
On June 5, when Kim was to take the train north, Moon put some things in a rucksack and told his wife he was going to north Korea to buy rice.30 He said he would be away for about fifteen days.31 He traveled up to Munsan where Kim was preparing to leave with Na Choi-sup, one of the female celibates in his group, and two or three elderly women. Na's father had been a prominent elder in the Jesus Church, and had died in prison during the Japanese occupation. The party would stay with Na's mother at the family home in Pyongyang. They took the train to Kaesong. There they waited till nightfall and sneaked across the border to the next station and caught the train for Pyongyang.32 Later Moon's wife tried several times, with the baby, to come up to join him, but was stopped at the border. It would be six years before they saw each other again.
Early photo of Reverend Sun Myung Moon.