The man who assassinated Abe Shinzo in July 2022 was motivated by the belief that the former prime minister was linked to a religious group known as the Unification Church. It was subsequently revealed that in fact many Diet members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had friendly ties to the Unification Church. The revelations have prompted almost daily headlines in Japan.
The Unification Church is a religious movement that was founded in 1954 by Korean religious leader Moon Sun Myung. It was later renamed the “Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.” There’s no telling from that name whether or not the organization is a religion; however, in Europe and the United States, it has long been treated as a cult. Headquartered in South Korea, the group’s practice of extracting huge donations from its Japanese followers to atone for Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula has from time to time been recognized in Japan as a social problem. Following the death of Moon Sun Myung 10 years ago, his wife Han Hak Ja became the group’s leader.
In numerous testimonials, victims have reported the negative impact of so-called “spiritual sales” – scaring people into buying trinkets that will supposedly relieve their families of bad “ancestral karma” or extorting large donations from followers under the pretext of solving their problems. At times, the children of the religion’s followers have been left in extreme poverty that would normally be inconceivable in Japan, a country where few people would call themselves religious, and indeed with some having developed an acute allergy to religion.
There’s no disputing that Abe’s assassination was the most shocking event to occur in Japan in 2022, and it has placed the Unification Church under much closer scrutiny. In the meantime, North Korea’s increasingly frequent missile tests, which have seen missiles repeatedly land in the Sea of Japan, have been competing for the public’s attention. At first glance, these issues might appear unrelated, but the Unification Church and North Korea are, in fact, closely linked.
The Unification Church has strongly criticized North Korea under the slogan “Victory over Communism.” However, in 1991, its founder sensationally visited North Korea and met with then President Kim Il Sung. At the time, North Korea had become increasingly isolated with the end of the Cold War and was in serious financial straits. It was left with no option but to accept support from a relatively young religious movement advocating “Victory over Communism.” Moon Sun Myung was born in a present-day North Korean province before the division of Korea and not only wanted to return to his hometown in glory but also believed he could spread his faith among North Koreans, who would need emotional support were North Korea to collapse like the Soviet Union.
Looking back at Moon’s itinerary during his visit to North Korea, in addition to meeting and dining with Kim, he toured famous sightseeing spots such as Juche Tower and Mount Kumgang before issuing a joint statement expressing his intention to invest in economic projects. The group undoubtedly invested enormous amounts in North Korea, though the actual sum cannot be verified.
In fact, the Unification Church started up a joint venture with North Korea known as Pyeonghwa Motors, assembling North Korea’s first domestically produced vehicles. A travel company affiliated with the Unification Church organized pilgrimage tours for followers as well as sightseeing tours for the general public. The group invested in real estate projects such as the Pothonggang Hotel, where foreign visitors often stay, and the large-scale Ansan Restaurant. It also built an amazing facility to serve as a “World Peace Center,” complete with a chapel. Unification Church members have been permanently stationed in Pyongyang for many years.
As a researcher of the Korean Peninsula, I have been advised by senior researchers to be wary of organizations affiliated with the Unification Church and academic journals published by the organization. In Washington, I encountered some Unification Church members who invited me to a symposium, offering a huge honorarium. I declined because I was aware of the back story, but many respected researchers have been signed up for such symposia by groups affiliated with the Unification Church, which have approached them under different names. This has misled the researchers into inadvertently endorsing the “legitimacy” of the Unification Church.
In short, the Unification Church has been highly politicized, as a way to protect itself and expand its sphere of influence. For more than half a century, it has been approaching influential lawmakers on their rise to power, actively making donations and supporting their election campaigns. A former prime minister in the 1970s made remarks such as “A great leader will appear in Asia. His name is Sun Myung Moon!”
For many years, LDP lawmakers have attended events held by groups affiliated with the Unification Church and cooperative relations have become the norm. As prime minister, Abe sent a video message saying, “I would like to express my respect to President Hak Ja Han, who has worked toward the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
It’s quite ironic that the Unification Church, having extracted huge donations out of Japanese followers, has invested in North Korea while the Japanese government, now agonizing over the missiles being fired by North Korea, actually colluded with the religious group.