She was supposed to be the “True Mother” who would reverse the fall of man by bearing children from a sin-free bloodline and ushering in a new era. But, after marrying the 40-year-old Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, at just 17 and giving birth to seven sons and seven daughters, Hak Ja Han would be the one to take control of her husband’s church, along with his multi-billion-dollar global empire and his spiritual legacy.
The church’s substantial assets have, over time, included a shipbuilding operation, seafood company, vast real estate holdings including the New Yorker Hotel, The Washington Times and Pyeonghwa Motors in North Korea. Kim Ki-hoon, the Unification Church’s North America chairman, reports that the church owns about a dozen business subsidiaries in the U.S. worth about $1.5 billion. In South Korea, the church-owned conglomerate Tongil Group deals in everything from ginseng to guns. The church’s 13 South Korean subsidiaries represent another $1.6 billion in assets, according to a recent Korean newspaper report and confirmed by Kim.
The church claims to have 3 million members worldwide, including 100,000 in the U.S., though scholars are skeptical. “The Unification movement has been more successful financially than in membership,” says David Bromley, professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In contrast to the free-love movement that blossomed in the 1960s, the Unification Church drew followers interested in a communal, monklike existence, abstaining from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex. Parents of the newly converted American youths peddling flowers and trinkets on the streets for the church hired anti-cult specialists to “deprogram” their brainwashed children. Japanese were especially generous and self-sacrificial, with some members taking out bankrupting personal loans for Moon. With the largest number of “Moonies” in the world, Japan has been a cash cow for the church — its dedication justified as atonement for their sins during World War II.
Founded in Korea’s southern port city of Busan in 1954, the Unification Church grafted Christianity with Confucianism and anti-communism. Moon, who fled his native North Korea after the war broke out, made shrewd investments in manufacturing and real estate in South Korea, and his fortunes snowballed with the postwar economic boom. “Money accumulated through business is sacred money,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography.
The charismatic preacher first glimpsed Han Hak Ja, the daughter of his cook, when she was just 14 years old. They met again three years later, and he announced they would wed the next day. Moon was determined to make his new bride pay for Eve’s original sin, keeping her under virtual house arrest in a “believer’s annex” until she turned 20. He sought “absolute obedience” from his second wife, ordering her to cut contact with her family so she could devote herself fully to the church. Soon the couple welcomed the first of their 14 children, and Moon moved the family to an estate in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
When the self-proclaimed messiah passed away at 92 in 2012, Han became the heir apparent after efforts to groom their “sinless” children failed. Their firstborn son, Hyo-jin, was disgraced when his ex-wife published a book in 1998 painting him as a coke and porn addict. Hyo-jin’s sister Un-jin defended the book, and he died from a heart attack a decade later. His was the fourth death among Han’s children: She lost a child in infancy and two sons to a car accident and suicide in 1984 and 1999. Some viewed daughter In-jin as a possible successor despite the Confucian-Christian penchant for male leadership, but she retired from public life in 2012 following her divorce and remarriage.
Hyun-jin and Hyung-jin, both Harvard grads and both leading contenders for control of the family empire, are estranged from their mother, according to a church insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Hyun-jin is being sued for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars in church funds. Hyung-jin, stripped of all leadership roles after his father died, was exiled by his mother to northeast Pennsylvania, where he started the Unification Sanctuary. Neither responded to requests for comments.
Eager to steer clear of scandals that have engulfed many of her children, Han retreated to the country outside Seoul. Having raised her family in opulence in upstate New York, she was quick to blame the fall of her holy children on Americans’ excess and permissive ways. And, after five decades enjoying a privileged position as the first lady of the Unification Church, meeting world leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and delivering speeches at the U.N. and Capitol Hill, she is now content, at 74 years old, to be worshipped by followers as the “co-messiah.”
And, in service of her husband’s mission to help rebuild humankind, Han has distilled more than 500 books of Moon’s writings and speeches into three volumes, according to her close aide Kim Ki-hoon. Today, Kim adds, Han devotes more of her time to providing theological instruction for younger generations and less on global business interests, although she receives daily updates on and sets broad direction for her portfolio companies.
For lay believers such as Yamanaka Im, 57, from Japan, Han remains a shepherd. Baptized in the church in 1982 and wed to a Korean man in a mass ceremony in 1988, Im estimates she’s seen Han 20 times. She calls Han “patient” and “greedless” — even after enduring “a lot of hardship” — pointing out that Han sold her private jet and helicopter to benefit her educational foundation. “We just want our mother [Han] to rest now,” Im says. “She’s continuing what our father [Moon] couldn’t finish.”