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Apocalyptic Movement Stirs Social Crisis in South Korea

September 28, 1992|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Im Hwa Ja, bewildered and depressed, has seen her entire world collapse around her. Since last November, her husband of 25 years, a prosperous director of a book-publishing firm, abruptly quit his job, sold the house, began beating her and now, to keep himself "clean," refuses to sleep with her. Im's three sons, the pride of her life, dropped out of their university.

As if a malevolent spirit had infected the men she loved and turned them into strangers, they began to shun her as Satan, and they spend much of their days and nights praying at a mysterious church in Seoul.

They--along with an estimated 20,000 other South Koreans--are waiting for the beginning of the end of the world.

In an apocalyptic movement that is rocking this devout nation and fast becoming an urgent social crisis, scores of people are selling their homes, quitting jobs and schools, abandoning families and even having abortions to prepare for Oct. 28. That's the day they believe that 144,000 believers around the world will be lifted into heaven in a phenomenon called "the rapture," prophesied in the Book of Revelation.

The event is supposed to set off seven years of war, famine and other scourges that will virtually annihilate the Earth and set the stage for the triumphant Second Coming of Christ.

But this belief--which a leading proponent, Minister Lee Jang Rim, has celebrated as "good news"--has been condemned as blasphemy by mainstream churches and by civil authorities as a dangerous cult movement tearing families apart, ruining lives and, in some case, even ending them. Already three suicides related to the rapture have occurred. The darkest fears are that should the rapture not materialize, the movement is preparing for mass suicides, similar to those committed in Guyana in 1978 by hundreds of followers of the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple.

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For instance, some followers--including Im's three sons--are being prepared for "martyrdom" by being told they will die painlessly and, like Jesus Christ, rise again after three days. Lists of appointed "martyrs" are said to have been prepared with names of believers and the precise date and places of their deaths. Some have already disappeared from Seoul, and families fear that they have been transported to North Korea and other places for sacrifice.

"This is a serious crime, not to mention a sin, because they are totally destroying happy families," said Im, who adds that the ordeal has transformed her from an optimist to a despairing, tearful woman.

The movement is believed to have spread to Korean communities overseas, including the Maranata Mission headed by Ahn Byung O in Los Angeles. There, according to Korean press reports here, a 36-year-old Korean-American died Sept. 8 from malnutrition caused by fasting.

Although government officials here initially took a hands-off position, saying they could not interfere with religious freedom, mounting social pressure has forced them into action. Last week, Seoul police arrested Lee and charged him with fraud--misappropriating $430,000 in church funds--and illegal possession of $26,711 in American currency.

The police have also booked 29 others on charges of illegally passing out propaganda and are monitoring doomsday churches and evangelists around the clock.

And the Defense Ministry, whose military ranks have also been hit by a sudden surge in deserters and applications for early discharge, recently announced that it would begin screening all material being carried into the barracks by soldiers. In addition, the ministry plans to begin educational programs for a "sound religious life," a spokesman announced recently.

But the actions may have little impact. Lee's Tami Mission in Seoul and its 1,700 followers, for instance, are merely one church among what cult expert Tahk Myeong Whan estimates to be more than 300 congregations in South Korea spreading the rapture prophecy.

And no amount of social censure seems able to sway the stalwart, many of whom write off opposition as Satan's trickery. During a recent visit to Lee's headquarters in Seoul, 600 believers packed three floors of the church building from 10 p.m. to midnight and listened enraptured to a videotape lecture by the preacher boasting of triumphing over previous police detentions.

"My charge was spreading good news," Lee thundered, as believers ranging from infants to the elderly murmured praises and pored over Bibles. "But we are not afraid. God's angels are with us."

Spokesman Choi Hyung Jin, who joined the church two years ago, said the Tami Mission does not endorse abortion, divorce, martyrdom or quitting schools and jobs as do more radical sects. "We are just trying to remain as clean and holy as possible," he said.

Why a well-educated society such as South Korea would be gripped by such an extremist movement has left analysts groping for explanations.

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