Cult Leaders Accused Of Swindling $1 billion

South China Morning Post, July 11, 2000
By Roger Dean Du Mars

In the nation's most extensive fraud committed by a cult, a married couple have been accused of swindling up to US$130 million (HK$1 billion) from 1,500 believers.

The Seoul District Prosecutor's office said in addition to the two ringleaders, Mo Haeng-ryong, 65, and his wife Park Kui-dal, 41, it indicted 42 other suspects and placed on a wanted list 113 members involved in the scam.

The "Chonjonhoe" cult, with 20 churches across the country, lured members by promising material and spiritual rewards that needed to be quickly acquired before the end of the world.

Prosecutors said 38 billion won (HK$264 million) had been uncovered.

"Finding all the money the cult leaders improperly acquired and hid in many investments will be a long task for us," a prosecutor said. "These people were expert professionals in how they got believers and manipulated all the money."

The prosecution is seeking to imprison the couple for 15 years, the maximum sentence for the crime.

The next largest case of cult fraud was in 1996, when 10 leaders of the "Aga Dongsan" group cheated members out of 7.2 billion won and embezzled 27 billion won.

Known for extreme religious beliefs, Koreans belong to 34 church denominations, 332 sects and 200 cults. The cults have more than 300,000 followers.

"There is no way we can control the spread of cults," said an official at the religious affairs division at the Ministry of Culture. "In this country there is freedom of religion and these groups don't have to register.

Aberrant behaviour of the religious organisations can only be discovered and halted when crimes are committed."

Kim Kwang-ok, professor of anthropology at Seoul National University, said the spread of the cults could be traced to a struggle to adapt.

"Over the years Korea has gone through radical social change, including the obsession with capitalism," he said. "Difficulty in adapting causes outlandish behaviour."

Mo and Park, who had registered the cult as a mainstream church in 1985, claimed to be sent to earth from heaven and convinced followers of the chance to find eternal happiness.

Prosecutors alleged the couple and the other ringleaders took out credit loans worth 31 billion won at 5,000 institutions and collected 3.5 billion won in donations.

The loans were made in the names of the followers. The money was used to form 10 companies and build an elaborate religious complex. The cult members included government officials, wealthy businessmen, teachers, salarymen, taxi drivers, soldiers and housewives.

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