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.