Obit Desk

The Strange Life of Reverend Sun Myung Moon

The bizarre tycoon and church leader never lived to see his dream of a reunited Korea.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and messenger of Jesus Christ, built a transcontinental business empire that rivaled his Unification Church in scope and power. Moon, who died Monday at the age of 92, managed to cultivate friendships with world leaders like George H.W. Bush, even though millions of worshippers, some of whom Moon blessed in colorful -- some might say wacky -- mass wedding ceremonies, called the church leader and his wife "father" and "mother" with cult-like intensity. But the fervently anti-communist Moon never managed to figure out North Korea, becoming one of the biggest individual investors of the authoritarian, atheist land of his birth even as he failed to change it.

Born in 1920, Moon said that when he was 15, Jesus appeared to him and told him to take on an unspecified "special mission on Earth." He concluded he needed to "go to Japan and to America so that I can let the world know the greatness of the Korean people," according to his autobiography. After graduating from middle school, Moon moved to Japan to study. In the autobiography, As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen, published in English in 2010, Moon tries to show how he suffered for his cause. Active in the Korean independence movement in Japan, Moon could not "even remember the number of times I was taken into custody by the police, beaten, tortured, and locked in a cell. Even under the worst torture, however, I refused to give them the information they sought."

Returning to Korea, Moon's preaching and proselytizing caught the attention of authorities, who arrested him for being a spy for the South Korean government and for "disturbing the social order," sentencing him to five years in a labor camp in 1948. "In prison, the authorities beat me endlessly and demanded that I confess my crimes," Moon wrote. "Even as I was vomiting blood and seemed on the verge of death, I never let myself lose consciousness ... [I] prayed with confidence, ‘God, don't worry about me. Sun Myung Moon is not dead yet. I won't let myself die in such a miserable way as this.' I was right."

The Korean War broke out while Moon was still in the camp. The day before he was scheduled to be executed, Moon claimed, the U.S. military attacked. "The high walls around the prison began to fall ... At around two o'clock in the morning on the next day, I walked calmly out of Heungnam Prison with dignity," he wrote.

Moon returned to South Korea and founded the Unification Church in 1954; a spokesperson for the church said that the roof of Moon's first dwelling in South Korea was made out of ration boxes. "Korea was terribly poor, so they decided to do business" to create revenue and support the mission work of the church, the spokesperson said, adding that in "the early days of the church, they would paint pictures of U.S. servicemen and their families, and sell them to earn funds."

Moon quickly expanded to tools and machine parts; in 1963, the budding tycoon founded the Tongil (Korean for "unification") Group, which soon extended into construction, resorts, and weapons, with the subsidiary Tongil Heavy, which was sold off in 1998. Most of the companies that Tongil runs are privately traded, making numbers difficult to come by; Forbes reported in April 2010 that Tongil Group's assets "are said to total $1.5 billion."

As his business empire grew, Moon positioned himself in the campaign to stop the spread of communism, which he saw as a "godless ideology that tried to dominate man and take away their connection from their heavenly parents," according to the church spokesperson. He founded the International Federation for Victory over Communism in 1968, which reached a membership of more than 4 million in South Korea, according to a church-affiliated website. In 1985, Moon funded a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, entitled "The End of the Soviet Empire." He even became something of a media mogul, creating and sponsoring outlets to help preach his views. Moon founded the conservative newspaper the Washington Times in 1982; the Unification Church also runs News World Communications, which owns the once-prominent newswire UPI. Moon reportedly spent more than $1.7 billion on the Washington Times.

No stranger to delusions of grandeur, Moon declared his ambition to rule the world, according to his obituary in the Washington Post; Time quoted him in 1976 as saying, "The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world." Some of his flights of fancy -- such as his claim to be the Messiah -- proved too much even for his supporters. "[On] any given day there's about 84 Messiahs roaming around the world. [The question is] who has the best practices," says Antonio Betancourt, the director of the office of peace and security affairs at the Universal Peace Federation International, a Unification Church-affiliated organization, who says he's been with Reverend Moon since 1974.

Moon often sought to parlay his religious and business interests into political ones. He met privately with then Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1990. But North Korea was more difficult. In the late 1980s, North Korea and the communist militant group the Japanese Red Army plotted to kill Moon, according to Betancourt and church documentation. Undeterred, Moon sought an audience with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, hoping to "prevent war from occurring on the Korean peninsula," Moon wrote in his autobiography. "Reverend Moon, foreseeing that the wave of collapse beginning in the Soviet Union would stretch all the way to North Korea, believed it was his mission to take care of the situation," wrote Bo Hi Pak, a top aide to Moon, in his book Messiah: My Testimony to Rev. Sun Myung Moon, published in English in 2002. According to Betancourt, who says he been to North Korea roughly 17 times, former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, a friend of Kim Il Sung's, helped arrange the meeting, which took place in Pyongyang in 1991.

Moon writes somewhat breathlessly about Kim Il Sung, whom he apparently saw as a charming, good-natured man who just happened to run one of the world's most repressive police states. "We were like brothers who were meeting for the first time after a long separation," Moon wrote in his autobiography. In 1991, North Korea had yet to test its first nuclear weapon, and Moon claims he proposed North Korea agree to a declaration of denuclearization. Kim "responded with candor," wrote Moon, quoting the North Korean leader as saying, "Think for a moment. Who am I going to kill by making nuclear weapons? Kill my own people? Do I look like that kind of person?"

The Unification Church claims that the summit helped defuse tension on the Korean peninsula in the lead up to the Korean nuclear crisis of the early 1990s, when Pyongyang announced that it planned to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). "We averted war," Betancourt told me. "If Reverend Moon hadn't engaged there would have been a war between North and South Korea, and the United States would have been involved."

Whether that's true or not, Moon did use his foothold in the country, as he had in China, Uruguay, and Japan, to expand his business empire. The summit led the way for Moon to open Pyonghwa Motors, North Korea's only joint-venture automobile factory, and the first, if not the only joint-venture allowed to put up billboards in Pyongyang.

Moon continued to expand his business ties after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. For Moon's 80th birthday in 2000, Kim Il Sung's son and heir Kim Jong Il reportedly sent a greeting card and an unspecified amount of rare wild ginseng, according to Unification Church officials. In 2009, Pyonghwa Motors even recorded a profit. A Moon-affiliated organization also owns the Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang, one of the nicest hotels in the country open to foreign visitors. (One reviewer on the travel site Trip Advisor enthused "It really looks like a hotel!") Moon was even allowed to build a church in North Korea, where visiting Unification Church delegates can pray in when they visit the country. The amount of money Moon invested in North Korea is unknown; Betancourt guesses $50 million.

The Unification Church appears to have maintained good contacts with Pyongyang; Moon's son Hyung Jin was one of the few foreign guests at Kim Jong Il's December funeral. As for North Korea, now ruled by the twentysomething Kim Jong Un, it seems no closer or further from collapse than it has been for decades. What's clear, though, is that unless he does turn out to be the Messiah after all, Reverend Moon won't be around to see what happens next.

Alex Wong/Newsmakers

Obit Desk

The Meles Zenawi I Knew

Ethiopia's late dictator was a complex and sophisticated leader -- a self-taught ex-guerrilla who brought his people economic growth and repression.

I once asked Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on Aug. 20 from an unspecified illness at age 57, whether he was a dictator. He grinned and then, stopping, just looked at me.

Nervously, I did what a journalist should never do, and filled the silence.

"A lot of people call you that," I said.

He told me he didn't care much what foreigners thought and that the people who described him that way were rarely his countrymen. "If Ethiopians thought that I was what you say, I would not sleep at night," he said. "But I don't believe they do."

I persisted that there were indeed Ethiopians who called him a dictator and that they often gathered to protest his trips overseas -- where, with his ferocious intellect, charm, and ability to speak in perfect paragraphs, he was regularly a star at meetings of the G-20 or in the snowy mountains of Davos.

Looking uncomfortable, he admitted that their presence saddened him.

"We may be at fault in some way," he said, as my pen started scratching with greater speed, anticipating a rare confession from a man usually so sure of himself.

"I am sorry," he said. "That maybe we didn't communicate well enough to those Ethiopians living abroad what is happening. What we are doing here."

Meles was not your typical one-dimensional African strongman -- a term often applied to him by the Western media but one that seemed somehow lazily old-fashioned and patronizing, jarring uncomfortably with his bookish demeanour.

Meles came to power as one of a group of men who led a rebel coalition that overthrew brutish communist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam -- a man who killed, by most estimates, hundreds of thousands of people in anti-opposition purges.

There is no evidence that power was something Meles craved simply to line his pockets, though the financial dealings of Ethiopia's ruling party are sometimes questionable. No private jets, Paris homes, or yachts decked out with shark tanks for this African leader.

Instead, friends said, on the very rare days when he wasn't working, he liked to play a bit of tennis, chat about political events outside Ethiopia, and dress down in sweatpants and sneakers to eat and drink with a small circle of family and confidantes.

He was a man on a different mission. What he was "doing here" was pursuing a vision, what he called the "Ethiopian Renaissance." But he didn't like people getting in his way.

"He loved Ethiopia and was proud of its long history," a Western academic who had regular email correspondence with him told me. "He wanted to restore it to glory."

***

In the early hours of Sept. 12, 2007, Meles, decked out in traditional dress, stood to give one of the most important speeches of his premiership so far. It had just turned midnight and Ethiopia, which follows a calendar long abandoned by the West, had entered its new millennium with fireworks and tooting car horns across Addis Ababa.

"We cannot but feel deeply insulted that, at the dawn of the new millennium, ours is one of the poorest countries in the world," he said, adding that "the darkness of poverty and backwardness" had dimmed the country's once proud and powerful reputation.

"A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia," he said to an ululating crowd.

The speech was not only important because of the ambitious vision it outlined, but because it took place just two years after the episode that will likely overshadow his achievements more than any other -- the disastrous and bloody 2005 general elections.

It's hard to overstate the fervor of that campaign. Ethiopians who had never lived in a democracy before were promised their first properly contested poll since Meles and his allies sent Mengistu fleeing to exile in Zimbabwe.

In the end, when Meles declared that his party had won a parliamentary majority, the opposition screamed fraud. In ensuing street riots, his police and soldiers killed almost 200 Ethiopians, most shot dead. Some were beaten to death.

The reaction from Meles was cold. He was sorry for the deaths, he said, but he'd simply told the security forces to "stop the insurrection." These were not normal demonstrations, he insisted. Afterwards, opposition leaders were rounded up and jailed.

With the opposition out of the way, along with several journalists, he ploughed on with the day-to-day running of government. His economic achievements, and his role as an opponent of Islamism in the Horn of Africa, pleased Western donors, most of whom usually offered little more than a temporary slap on the wrist.

That's not to say that Meles's attempts at reform were all mere window-dressing. The premier and his government did much to let the light in. Under his watch, a safety-net system -- a form of social welfare, he called it -- for the country's millions of hungry people was introduced, which, while unsuccessful at weaning them off foreign aid, ensured that the calamitous famine of 1984 and 1985 would never be repeated.

Economic successes continued even after the political turmoil of the 2005 elections. Under the leadership of  this former Marxist guerrilla, Ethiopia became one of the fastest growing economies not only in Africa but in the world, posting double-digit growth figures for the last seven years in a row. Infant mortality plummeted. A small middle class emerged. Roads were built. Rivers dammed. Villages electrified. Despite this undeniable progress, most Ethiopians remained poor -- something Meles insisted he was working toward eradicating with a series of five-year plans.

Masterful at dealing with Western governments, he cleverly played off their own security concerns and their rivalry with China and India, to which he also cozied up. There were few African leaders who could berate their donor countries while simultaneously holding out their palm for more aid money, but Meles had the chutzpah to carry it off.

These achievements are even more remarkable given the fact that, according to a Western intelligence officer who knew Meles when he was still a bush rebel and after he came to power, the premier entered office knowing almost nothing about economics.

"When I had my final conversation with him after spending the better part of two months in Ethiopia immediately after he took over in the summer of 1991, I asked Meles what he would like me to do to help him before I left," the man recounted.

"I need to learn something about economics," Meles told him. "Can you get me some basic books?" The intelligence officer then went to an embassy, looked through its library, and picked about a dozen volumes and had them delivered to the new leader.

Meles eventually sat for a long-distance learning degree from Britain's Open University. He came in a remarkable third in his graduating class despite studying while governing one of Africa's most populated countries (friends say he chain-smoked through the exams). Such was Meles's command of economic theory in later years that the former guerrilla, who had in fact dropped out of medical school at 19 to join the rebellion, was often mistakenly believed by some journalists and diplomats to have been studying economics.

From the age of 19, there was no let-up. Seventeen years as one of a group at the helm of a rebel force taking on Africa's largest army, backed by the Soviets. Four years as transitional president. And then a long -- some say too long -- 17 years as prime minister.

In 2010, I asked him whether he ever imagined he'd be in power for so much of his life.

"That was clearly not what I expected," he said, with a rare smile. "It's happened. I don't regret it but I just hope that, at the end of it all, it will have been worth it."

At the bimonthly press conferences he held at his office in Addis Ababa for foreign correspondents, I'd always been impressed by the rings he could run around us with such ease. "Don't ever forget that he's cleverer than us all," an editor of mine advised.

That cleverness often spurred whip-smart humor. I asked him whether he would say hello to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, a former rebel ally with whom he fought a border war from 1998 to 2000, should he ever attend an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital.

"Well, I'm under no obligation to meet him at the airport," he deadpanned.

But toward the end, he sometimes seemed weary and his temper began to fray. He would often snap at reporters, forgetting or not caring to remember his charm -- a temper he carried to parliament.

"What is your question? Do you have one?" he spat at a pontificating journalist one day. "Or are you people in the business of making speeches now?"

A U.S. diplomat in Geneva was publicly described as an "idiot." A European Union election report was "trash that deserves to be thrown in the bin." He seemed to enjoy saying that he had "nothing but contempt" for the International Crisis Group, which had warned of rising ethnic tension around the country.

"You must be tired," I joked to him at a press conference once. He didn't reply.

By then, there was growing pressure on him to atone for his wrongs. In the last two years, he was criticized internationally for his adventures in neighbouring Somalia, for the manner in which he put down festering insurrections at home, and for accusations that he favored his minority Tigrayan ethnic group. A draconian anti-terrorism law was used to unjustly jail opposition leaders and journalists.

Diplomats seemed puzzled about the need to crack down now, his party having won all but two of the 547 parliamentary seats in a heavily criticized 2010 poll. Perhaps his long illness now offers an explanation, as the small group of comrades who ran the ruling party with him will want to ensure a smooth transition of power to a successor.

On Election Day in 2010, I was surprised to secure agreement to travel with Meles on an Ethiopian Airlines plane to his hometown of Adwa. Only a few weeks earlier, I had been summoned to the Information Ministry and threatened with expulsion for my reporting on the persistent accusations of opposition intimidation and harassment during the election campaign.

When we landed, his heavily armed security team directed us to get off the plane before him. But when the crew had difficulty opening the door, I found myself standing in the aisle next to him, so close that my laptop bag accidentally nudged his shoulder.

I watched the normally unflappable prime minister rocking nervously back and forth in his seat. His hands clasped tightly together, he stared out the window at the welcoming committee on the tarmac, made up of officials and small children bearing flowers. He didn't take his eyes off the window once.

I got off the plane ahead of him and, when he emerged, he was Meles again -- confident, powerful, with that quick strut that suggested there weren't enough hours in the day.

On the journey to Adwa, I noticed that he'd been reading the Economist magazine. He'd left the page open to a story about hydropower -- a pet project of his, and one of his most ambitious and controversial plans for spearheading the Ethiopian renaissance.

But the magazine also contained another story of interest -- one about him. It warned that the "strong hand" of his government was crushing the opposition, stifling the press, and scaring human rights groups. The crackdown threatened to overshadow his achievements.

He would have read that, too.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images