To Moscow with the Moonies! Of all the assignments that can come in a reporter’s career, this had to be the weirdest.
Across my desk at the old Far Eastern Economic Review office in Hong Kong in early 1990 came a letter inviting me to speak at the forthcoming World Media Conference in Moscow, all expenses paid.
It was clear from back-up information that this was ultimately sponsored by the Unification Church. Indeed its founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, would preside in person.
Quibbles about dubious sponsorship were set aside by my boss: this was a genuine news event, one of the more bizarre conjunctions happening as the Soviet system unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On arrival at Moscow’s international airport, Moon’s guests were ushered into a shabby VIP room with an equally dubious collection of VIPs, including several former Latin American dictators, the widow of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat and a former vice-president to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.
At the Slavyanskaya Hotel, fellow delegates proved an eclectic mix. The most engaging company at the breakfast buffet was Nikolai Tolstoy, a British author of wartime history and a descendant of Russia’s greatest writer, and Sir Alfred Sherman, a lively London political gnome who had been a trusted adviser to Margaret Thatcher.
At the opening session in the main hall, some of America’s most fiercely anti-communist commentators and think-tankers filed in. This was a gathering of hawks in the very heart of the ”evil empire” – there to watch its downfall. Some did not trust their eyes, wondering aloud if they were being inveigled into a Soviet front organisation.
Moon and his wife greeted delegates in a reception line. His handshake was perfunctory. The eyes in the granite face barely made contact. If he was the new messiah, it wasn’t much of a blessing.
Rising from a vast podium, Moon began a sermon. It went back to basics in his theology, starting with the original sin, which he said was Eve’s illicit sex with Satan, the unfinished mission of Jesus that Moon himself had taken up by forming the ”perfect family”, and the ongoing battle with Satan that would end with Armageddon, fought roughly along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea.
As it went beyond an hour, Moon’s audience of Cold War warriors gazed fixedly at different points of the ceiling, not catching anyone’s eyes.
Next morning in the breakfast line, one of them quipped: ”I gotta say, I was rootin’ for Satan.”
My turn to speak came, after a former Japanese vice-minister of transport suggested a network of highways around Asia, so that perfect families could motor over to see one another. I gave a rundown on current Asian affairs. The audience dozed. A few journalistic colleagues smirked.
After the conference, I went on a tour of the Soviet republics in central Asia. Russian settlers gathered fearfully in their nomenklatura clubs and hotels, getting drunk and dancing the lambada. In Ashkhabad, Ukrainian missile officers shared gassy Georgian champagne and wondered in which army they would be the following year. In Samarkand, local Aeroflot pilots filled me with vodka and put me on the flight back to Moscow.
When I arrived, the May Day parade in Red Square had become a shambles, the crowds waving the Russian tricolour and imperial double-headed eagle instead of the hammer and sickle.
With this notch in his pulpit, Moon was on his way to the final stage of his crusade against communism. A year or two later, he visited Pyongyang to meet Kim Il-sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the lifelong political satan in the Moon world view. Kim gave him a licence to set up a car assembly plant.
”They were reconciled,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at the University of Sydney. And why not? As Petrov notes, Moon’s ”cocktail” of religions and ideologies – Christianity, Confucianism, shamanism and anti-communism – was a mirror-image of Kim’s Juche (self-reliance) mix of nationalism, communism, neo-Confucianism, and Korean nativism.
Both played heavily on the Korean dream of national reunification. Moon was to claim Kim nominated him as the one to bring the two halves together. When Moon died this week, aged 92, it still hadn’t happened.
Cults flourish when empires weaken. In 19th century Korea, as European powers and Japan forced the hermit kingdom open, there was the Tong Hak (Eastern Teaching) movement, which became fiercely anti-foreign, like the Taiping and Boxers in neighbouring China.
Moon’s church grew in a Korea humiliated by 35 years of Japanese annexation, then ravaged by the vicious Korean War. It was one of the exotic faiths, including even Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo (which carried out the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro), that were taken up by some Russians in the ”crisis of faith” as communism collapsed.
Moon was a prominent lobbyist for South Korea’s military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Moon’s jail term in the US for tax evasion was seen as a kind of martyrdom by his followers, and a badge of honour among many American neo-cons.
Criticising him was risky. A skinny Presbyterian theology professor, Tahk Myung Whan, who set out to expose Moon and other cults, was arrested many times. I am told Tahk was found murdered in his apartment more than a decade ago. He would have angered many fanatics, not just the Moonies.
South Korea is now a prosperous, wired society, where the past that nurtured Moon and the Unification Church is a foreign country for the young. That country still exists across the 38th parallel. What strange flowers of belief will emerge there?
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.