Lee Seo-yeon, 24, lost her mother to the Grace Road Church and has lived as a "nobody" until recently.
Shin Ok-ju, the pastor and founder of the church, was arrested on Aug. 3 on a charge of forcing followers to stay on Fiji, where the church had a community, and inciting them to assault uncooperative members.
After releasing an article about Shin, a woman emailed The Korea Times. The sender claimed she had escaped from Fiji in 2014, after being deceived by her mother.
We talked over the phone and made arrangements to meet at a coffee shop at The Korea Times building at 7:30 pm on Aug. 17.
Lee Seo-yeon came in and apologized for running late from work. She was like any other woman in her 20s in Korea. She started talking about what happened to her four years ago while sipping green tea.
In 2014, her mother, a believer in the church, told her that she should move to Fiji.
As a pious daughter of a widowed mother, she followed that wish, although she didn't believe in any religion.
She arrived in Fiji on Dec. 2, 2014, planning to come back to Korea two weeks later. What she didn't know was that her mother had sold their house to permanently move to the island .
"They hugged me and touched me to the point that their behavior was not normal," Lee recalled. "Most of them were all strangers."
What astonished her was that her mother's family was there too, after wrapping up all of their livelihoods in Korea.
Seo-yeon was told to attend a mass wedding on New Year'sDay. She kindly refused to attend it and insisted she would leave in two weeks.
Only the day before her departure, she found her belongings ― laptop, mobile phone, credit card and passport ― were gone.
Lee called the Fijian police for help. She later found out that the church sent the officers, telling them it was a prank call.
Seo-yeon ran out of the compound in her pajamas and luckily, a police vehicle found her and took her to the station but church staff and her mother followed her in a car.
Seo-yeon managed to get an emergency passport from the Korean Embassy in Fiji and returned to Korea.
But that was not the end.
"When I arrived in Korea, a missing person report was filed on me," she said. Her aunt, also a Grace Road believer, did this.
If she were found, her aunt and the church would be notified.
She decided to stay "missing."
The Korea Times visited the Grace Road Church in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province.
The building, an old warehouse with solar panels on a front courtyard, was surrounded by farms and roads, but there appeared to be no footpaths.
The entrance was covered with the history of what the church had done over the years. On the side, there was a post warning that "666" was the devil's number and suggested joining in "special training" to learn how to cleanse the spirit. On the right they put "Fiji" as a "promised land."
The Presbyterian Church of Korea officially ruled the Grace Road Church as "heretical" in 2016.
Shin Jung-soon, a worshipper at the church, demanded that I turn off my recorder on my phone so I showed her an empty screen.
Shin explained that about 200 people attend Sunday service every week.
She avoided any questions regarding the "threshing ground rituals" and child abuse allegations, and just repeated "no comment" while hurriedly retreating into an office.
"Threshing ground" is a ritual in which worshippers had to beat each other or they would become the target of God's punishment, according to the newspaper. One follower reportedly sustained serious brain damage from the ritual.
A few days later, I sent an email asking about allegations of prohibiting people to go to hospitals and schools. The controversy on Fiji's land had to be made clear. Their perspective on "family" had to be noted in order to explain the psychological distress the remaining family members are going through.
The inquiry was sent but has not been answered.
A week after receiving Seo-yeon's story, an email arrived from Rachel (the name has been altered for privacy). She contacted me through Seo-yeon, as the two were depending on each other after sharing the traumatic experience.
The email told how she pulled her sister Joanna (the name has been altered for privacy) out from the church, leaving her worshipper mother behind.
Joanna was forced to go to Grace Road Church because of her mother. She spent three months there before escaping with the help of Rachel and her father's family members.
The mother was also deeply involved in the Seventh-day Adventist Remnant Church near Chicago when they were living in United States.
Then she began listening to sermons of the Grace Road Church on YouTube, and decided to move to Korea with Joanna.
The mother was not the only person who found Grace Road through YouTube.
[B.R.]'s mother and [T]'s mother also left in 2014 to "cleanse her soul," after watching the church's videos on YouTube.
In 2016 in South Korea, the family members of close relatives who had got involved with the church held a news conference. One told the reporters he used to listen to the sermons on YouTube for two or three years. However, after a year in the Grace Road Church, he realized something was not right and decided to leave.
Seo-yeon's mother used to go to a Catholic Church because of her mother-in-law. However, after her husband died, she started wandering from church to church.
"She became very anti-social, very controlling," Seo-yeon recalled.
"She started to buy these videos, CDs, and books… she spent a lot of money and time on that church," Seo-yeon said. "But I just thought this was for the better, because she was at least getting out of the house and being social,"
What made her mother and 400 other believers go to Fiji?
Seo-yeon often asks herself this question, even to this day.
Men work on the farms and women cook. Before and after the work they listen to Shin Ok-ju's sermon. They will continue the same routine until the "end of the world."
"I knew instantly it was a doomsday cult," Seo-yeon said.
Some were physically forced to listen to the sermons. According to Rachel, Joanna was dragged down the stairs when she refused to go.
Rachel and Joanna were publicly berated during one service.
"Pastor Shin shamed our family and cursed us in front of the congregation. I stayed with my sister."
"The pastor said she would pull out Joanna's tongue. I got so angry, I grabbed my sister and ran," Rachel said.
Rachel and her father pulled Joanna out of the church and quickly went inside a car that her uncle had parked in the yard.
Joanna got an emergency passport issued to go back to the United States (her mother took away the original one).
On the day of departure from Incheon International Airport, they found out Joanna's ticket had been cancelled. Her mother called the travel agency at the last minute to ask for the cancellation.
Other escapees told jtbc and MBC they had witnessed a "threshing ground ritual."
In the Korean investigative TV show "Unanswered Questions," video footage shows a daughter and mother slapping each other in front of the church congregation. The ritual was held under the surveillance of a "guardian," who had permission from Pastor Shin.
However, near the end of the program the presenter quoted Korean police as saying, "No one actually wanted to come back,"
The father of Song Ah-reum, now a Grace Road Group business development manager, purportedly died after he was beaten up in the ritual. Two people confessed they took part in that threshing ground ritual.
The Fiji Times interview with Daniel Kim from the Grace Road Church. Captured from The Fiji Times website.
Song denied such allegation saying his father died because of "liver cirrhosis" in the interview with "Unanswered Questions."
How did the church become the 'world' for worshippers?
In 2015, the New York Daily News reported about a Schizophrenic patient called Chung Seung-ick, 27, who had to have his leg amputated after his sisters insisted he undergo a "cleansing ritual." The sister and her husband were worshippers of the Grace Road Church.
According to civil and criminal court papers, Chung's wrists and knees were duct-taped to a chair in a basement, a towel was taped over his mouth to muffle him mouth. Shin allegedly supervised the "religious cleansing" to cure his mental disease. His leg became black and swollen by the time he was taken to a hospital. Chung later sued Pastor Shin.
Seo-yeon said the tragic incident occurred because the Grace Road church forbids people to go to hospital and has a distorted view on western medical treatment.
"They believe surgeons implant Radio Frequency Identification Devices into people when they are unconscious during surgery," Seo-yeon said.
The Grace Road Church also believe vaccination is a "way to inject nano-chips into people and track them as part of the US government's surveillance," according to the informant.
When Seo-yeon arrived in Fiji, the first thing Pastor Shin said to her was "quit school."
Her cousin, who was then a fourth grader, stopped going to primary school and spent all day in the church on Fiji.
"I think it is a way to isolate you, cut ties and make the church the only place for refuge. If you go to school, you have friends and people to tell you 'no, this is wrong,'"Seo-yeon said.
"It is ironic because Shin Ok-ju always brags that her son (David Kim) went to Harvard University," Seo-yeon said. "Shin wants her son to become a government official on Fiji."
The Grace Road Kitchen, a food business under the Grace Road Church, has nine franchises on Fiji. In retailing it has Missha Cosmetics, hair and beauty salons, the Grace Road Construction Company and True Value, a hardware store.
The Fiji government awarded the Grace Road Group for helping to rebuild the country after Cyclone Winston devastated the place.
Grace Road bought land from Fiji natives, on the condition that they would hire them as employees, and build infrastructure for their convenience.
In "Unanswered Questions," the Navua Tribe chief rented more than 33 hectares of land at the comparatively low price of 50 million won ($ 44,742) to the chutch. In return, Grace Road promised to build a school, hire Fijian natives and teach them farming techniques.
"They also said they will make our people work first and build homes. But no… Now the members have left (the land)," the chief said.
In an interview, a Fijian native identified as Nenora, said "they (Grace Road) tried to relocate me, they used the government."
A Fijian official told CNN that the Grace Road Group has established tight connections with high-ranking government officials, which makes it harder to arrest them in Fiji even if they are involved in crimes.
The Fiji police said they will continue their investigation, but progress remains unknown.
On Aug. 14 and 15. Korean and Fijian police raided the residences of Daniel Kim and six other people.
"These six people were to appear in court the next day. But they were released after an emergency conference between the solicitor general, and high level officials of the Immigration Service," Korean police said.
The front page of the Fiji Sun when Korean Police arrived to detain six church executives from the Grace Road Church on Aug 14 and 15.
After their release, Daniel Kim held a press conference at the Grace Road headquarters in Fiji, Navua, Aug. 21. The conference was for the two papers; no TV or Radio reporters were allowed according to a broadcast journalist in Fiji.
The Fiji Sun interview with Daniel Kim at the conference. Captured from Fiji Sun website.
Daniel Kim denied all allegations and said the arrest of Pastor Shin happened because of church politics. He said it was impossible to kidnap 400 people on Fiji.
According to the Fiji Times, Kim claimed the church had legal business licenses to operate on Fiji. Kim said the Korean people at Grace Road came to live on Fiji voluntarily with their families on a mission to "make Fiji shine."
TFour hundred people from different countries are still "voluntarily" living on Fiji. They are behind transparent bars without knowing they are incarcerated.
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