October 7, 2018 6:00 am
Updated: October 9, 2018 9:38 am

‘Everything went into that church’: How one woman says she lost her family to a Korean ‘doomsday cult’

Seo-Yeon Lee alleges she escaped from the Grace Road Church, a Christian group founded in South Korea by Pastor Ok-Joo Shin that's been based in Fiji since 2014.

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When Seo-Yeon Lee came home to Seoul from the Pennsylvania college she was attending, she found out her mother was suffering from the early stages of uterine cancer — and that she was refusing treatment.

Lee says her mom, Eun Jae Jeong, had become distrustful of medicine and feared doctors would inject her with a tracking chip — something she’d heard about at her new church.

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Lee’s father died of cancer in 2009, so it upset her to see her mother being so cavalier with her diagnosis. It had been four years since his death, and Lee noticed that despite her diagnosis, her mother was happier than she’d been since her husband died. She suddenly had many new friends through a new church she joined.

Lee was afraid to lose another parent to cancer, so she made her mother promise to go to the doctor, then the 21-year-old went back to her studies in the U.S.

But Jeong didn’t follow through on that promise. Lee discovered in mid-2014 that although her mother had steadfastly been attending church, she was avoiding her doctor.

Frustrated, Lee took a leave of absence from her degree in biology to return to Seoul and care for her mother.

“We made a deal that if I went to one sermon — just one — she would go get her treatments.”

Lee says that decision led her down a path that would split her from her extended family, plunge her into financial hardship, derail her education and leave her paranoid that her mother’s church might one day try to drag her back to their headquarters in Fiji to ride out the apocalypse.

Seo-Yeon Lee is shown in this image from her GoFundMe page.

Cecilia Lee/GoFundMe

Lee claims to have escaped from the Grace Road Church, a Christian-inspired group founded in South Korea by Pastor Ok-Joo Shin in 2002. The group claims to have members from South Korea, Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and New Zealand, according to its website. Its corporate arm, GR Group, has over 400 members and more than $10 million in business investments in Fiji.

“It presents itself as a harmless church — a religious organization that has all these businesses — but it’s a complete façade,” Lee said. “Grace Road is a cult.”

The group denies it’s a cult, casting itself as a Christian religious movement. Grace Road was just starting to establish itself in Fiji in 2014. Now, with 400 members relocated to the tiny South Pacific nation, it may be on the verge of crumbling. Shin was arrested in South Korea in July and is accused of taking her followers’ passports to trap them in Fiji, and of beating them as part of a church ritual. She has denied all the charges.

Pastor Ok-Joo Shin is shown at a Grace Road Church service in this image captured from video.

SBS

Lee says her relatives and other members of the church tried to trap her in Fiji by taking her passport in 2014.

The church’s corporate arm, GR Group, denied Lee’s allegations in an email statement to Global News. “She has never been to Grace Road Church,” the group said. GR Group acknowledged that Lee left Fiji “through the embassy,” and that her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins are part of the group.

“Seo-Yeon Lee’s case is a family matter between her mother and herself, and her story is false and very exaggerated,” a church spokesperson said.

“[Jeong] wanted her daughter to grow in faith, so she asked her to go to Fiji together with her,” an unnamed spokesperson for GR Group told Global News.

Global News attempted to reach Jeong through Grace Road but was unable to speak with her directly.

Lee provided Global News with several supporting documents to corroborate her story, including a Fiji police report declaring her passport lost, airline tickets showing her flights between Fiji and South Korea and a photo of her temporary passport issued on Dec. 16, 2014. The temporary passport was issued for a single flight from Fiji to South Korea.

‘The end of times’

Lee first met Shin in the summer of 2014, after agreeing to attend a sermon with her mom.

Jeong drove Lee to an industrial area outside Seoul, where the Grace Road Church had set up hundreds of folding chairs for a service in a warehouse. It looked rundown and thrown together, Lee said. “It was very creepy,” she recalled.

Lee, who grew up Catholic and went to church every Sunday as a child, had never heard the passages Shin cited about a devastating famine that would wipe out the world’s population.

“The pastor went on and on about Revelation, the end of times,” Lee said.

“It just didn’t feel right. I knew the second I stepped in that it was wrong.”

Followers of the Grace Road Church believe the world will be wiped out by famine and that the only place that will be spared is Fiji, according to the group’s website. But Lee says she didn’t hear about Fiji until later.

‘Help me move’

Lee didn’t join Grace Road after her first sermon, but her mother did keep her promise to get surgery to remove her cancer.

Lee stayed in South Korea for Jeong’s recovery that summer and took an internship at a university in Seoul. She made a friend there, and when he moved to Montreal for school, she booked a plane ticket to visit.

Meanwhile, Jeong was starting to talk about moving to Fiji. She told Lee she was going to sell their belongings and retire there, and she wanted her daughter to come along.

Lee wasn’t in touch with her father’s side of the family, but her mother’s side supported the move. Lee refused to move there permanently, but was open to helping her mother settle in. She agreed to go for a two-week visit in December, after which she would catch her flight to Montreal via South Korea. She boarded the plane with her mother to Fiji, expecting a quiet vacation.

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Lee recognized the man who met them at the airport, but she couldn’t immediately place from where. Later, when they arrived at a crowded villa in Pacific Harbour, she figured it out: he was from the Grace Road, and her mom was moving into the church’s new commune.

“I was internally freaking out,” Lee said.

You’re not leaving’

Lee spent two weeks at the commune in December 2014. Approximately 30 people lived there, with the women working in the kitchen and the men tending a large farm they had acquired nearby. She says they hand-built everything, including the beds, and would gather each day to watch a livestream of Pastor Shin’s sermon from South Korea. Lee didn’t join in.

The Grace Road Church’s early farm operations are shown in Fiji in December 2014.

Cecilia Lee

Several church members tried to convince her to stay for a mass wedding involving four couples on New Year’s Eve. But Lee had no intention of cancelling her trip to Montreal, so she waited out the two weeks and tried not to get too involved.

Lee claims that the day before her flight she discovered that her laptop, her passport, her credit cards and all her belongings were gone. She demanded her mother return them, but she refused, as Lee recalls, saying: “Your passport’s gone. You’re not leaving, you’re staying.”

Lee panicked. She claims she called the police for help, but a member of the church called the police back to say it was just a prank. She suspects that church members cut her landline, and that one of her relatives used her social insurance number to disable her cellphone.

Lee says she ran out into the street and started screaming, drawing stares from the neighbours. She says Grace Road members dragged her back to her room and told the neighbours it was fine. “I was trashing the entire place, just trying to get attention,” she said.

‘Escape’ from Grace Road

The next day Lee says she fled Grace Road in her pyjamas and flip-flops, with no passport, money or possessions. She says several members saw her run through the villa gate, but failed to catch up with her before she reached a passing police car.

According to Lee, the police officer dropped her off at the South Korean embassy. The embassy gave her a temporary travel certificate for her return flight to South Korea, and police promised to give her an escort to the plane.

She says members of the church followed her at a distance through every step of the process.

Seo-Yeon Lee’s travel certificate, stamped by the Korean embassy in Fiji, is shown.

Cecilia Lee

Lee’s mother caught up with her just before she left for the airport. Lee says that in a tense confrontation, Jeong told Lee she was adopted and that she would lose her entire family if she left Fiji because they were all joining the church, too. According to Lee, Jeong also said she’d sold all of their belongings — including Lee’s father’s business — and donated all her money to the church. In other words, there was nothing left for Lee in South Korea.

“It was my mom’s sick way of saying that she really cared for me and she really wanted me to go to heaven, and staying in Fiji ensured my passage to heaven,” Lee said.

Lee left Fiji on an early-morning flight on Dec. 17, 2014. She spent one week in South Korea getting her official documents re-issued and convincing police that she was not missing, after learning that a missing persons report had been filed about her. Lee shared an image of the missing persons report with Global News. She suspects it was filed by a devotee of Grace Road.

Lee boarded a flight for Montreal on Dec. 22 and went to stay with her friend, returning to South Korea eight months later.

Lee says the ordeal derailed her plans to go to medical school and left her broke. “I was essentially homeless,” she said, adding that she eventually got back on her feet thanks to help from friends who let her stay with them in South Korea.

Now 25, Lee works in Seoul and is not in touch with either side of her family. She says her mom and her mom’s family “ruined her life” over the Grace Road Church.

‘A beautiful utopia’

GR Group has over three dozen restaurants, resorts and hardware stores in Fiji, a small nation with 920,000 citizens and a GDP of approximately US$5.1 billion — roughly 40 per cent larger than the GDP of Prince Edward Island. The group invested $5 million in Fiji National University to lease land and build a rice farm on its property. It also has several contracts with the Fijian government, including agreements to renovate the president’s residence and the prime minister’s office.

A spokesperson for Fiji National University says the school conducted its due diligence with GR Group before entering into a partnership in 2015, and that the school has had a “harmonious” relationship with the group ever since.

The Fijian government did not respond to a Global News request for comment.

Several former members say the group’s wealth comes from its members, who are urged to sell all their possessions and donate the proceeds to the church. Lee says her mother was handpicked to set up the operation in Fiji because she donated a large sum of money, including the value of Lee’s father’s company, to the church.

“If I knew the number, I think I’d be sick,” Lee said. “Everything went into that church — my father’s legacy.”

The Grace Road Church is one of several Christian-inspired “doomsday” groups to emerge in South Korea over the last few decades, according to Donald Baker, a professor specializing in Korean religions at the University of British Columbia.

“They expect the world to end soon and therefore they cut off all their worldly ties to just sit and wait for Christ to return,” Baker told Global News. “[Shin] found a ‘safe’ place for believers to go. She says the Bible told her it’s Fiji.”

Grace Road isn’t the first such group to seek refuge in Fiji, where extradition laws can be difficult to manage. American mystic Franklin Jones moved his controversial Adidam group to an island in Fiji in the 1980s. Alleged Australian cult leader Rocco Leo also moved to Fiji after Australian police raided his group’s properties.

More recently, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman staked her private island in Fiji as bail after she was arrested in connection with the Nxivm, an alleged sex cult. Bronfman originally purchased the island in 2016.

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Experts have compared Grace Road to such groups as the Rajneesh, whose aggressive tactics in Oregon were documented in the Netflix docu-series Wild, Wild Country, and the People’s Temple, the Jim Jones-run doomsday cult whose members died by mass suicide in Guyana nearly 40 years ago. Both groups famously left the area where they were founded and set up isolated settlements elsewhere.

“What’s happening in Fiji sometimes reminds me of Jonestown — the People’s Temple,” said Ji-Il Tark, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea.

Tark says Grace Road followers are taught to sacrifice everything in this world as an “investment” in their salvation. “If one believes in Pastor Shin’s teachings, the priority of their lives has been radically changed from common sense to exclusive religious belief, and from family-centred to church-centred,” he said.

He adds that wealth and political influence are crucial to the survival of groups like the Grace Road Church because it allows them to protect their interests and isolate their members.

The Grace Road Church compound is shown in Fiji in this image from July 2018.

Bradley Watt via Cecilia Lee

Steven Hassan, an expert in mind-control tactics and who describes himself as a former cult member, also sees similarities between Shin and People’s Temple leader Jim Jones.

“He painted a picture of a beautiful utopia in Guyana and they got a lot of the members to go down, then they took their passports away, which is exactly what this group did in Fiji,” he told Global News.

Hassan says it’s very difficult for family members who lose someone to a cult, because it’s like that person has died. They completely change and no longer listen to reason or care about their loved ones. Hassan joined an alleged Korean cult known as the Unification Church when he was 19. He says he acted much the same way Jeong did with Lee because he had been brainwashed by his group’s charismatic leader. “I couldn’t think because I was taught thought-stopping techniques to shut out doubts,” he said. “I was a fanatic.”

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Hassan left the group after his sister intervened and introduced him to several former cult members.

He says cult brainwashing works best when victims are isolated, but it begins to break apart when they are exposed to who they used to be.

A reckoning for Pastor Shin?

South Korean police began investigating Grace Road this summer, after several former followers alleged that the church took away 400 members’ passports in Fiji and subjected many members to fierce beatings.

Video also surfaced showing Shin beating several members of her congregation at services. The footage was first published by the Seoul Broadcasting Service (SBS) in a documentary and appears to have been captured by cameras that were set up to record Shin’s sermons.

Ok-Joo Shin, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, is shown allegedly striking a person in this image from video published by SBS in South Korea.

Seoul Broadcasting Service

Police in South Korea arrested Shin and three of her followers in July and charged them with assault and forcible confinement in connection with the former devotees’ allegations.

Fijian and South Korean police launched a raid on the Grace Road compound in Fiji in August. Six individuals were arrested, including Shin’s son, GR Group president Daniel Kim. They were later released without charge.

Kim, who received a business award from Fiji’s prime minister last year, says there is no truth to the allegations against Grace Road.

“All of our people came to Fiji to live here voluntarily with their families and do various projects for the mission to make Fiji shine, because this is our motto,” he told the Fiji Sun on Aug. 21.

Several former members have come out against the church in the wake of Shin’s arrest. One individual, who asked to be called Seong Bin Na, said he saw several people injured during the ritual beatings. In some cases, he says family members were compelled to strike each other. “People start bleeding, eyes get swollen, ear drums get ruptured,” he told SBS in Korean.

“They drag the person by the hair. While being dragged, they would repeatedly hit the person’s mouth and eyes.”

Another former follower told the Fiji Times that he was subjected to brutal working conditions on the Grace Road farm after he moved to Fiji with his wife and two daughters in 2015. “We ate, slept, worked six days a week,” said Park Chanmoon.

The 70-year-old says he worked 12-to-14-hour shifts in the fields and was beaten several times at Pastor Shin’s services. The church denied his claims.

A Grace Road Church farm is shown in Fiji in this image from July 2018.

Bradley Watt via Cecilia Lee

“They did not beat anyone when I was there,” Lee said.

Shin remains in custody in South Korea. It’s unclear who is leading Grace Road in Shin’s absence.

Tark says it’s difficult for cult members to move on after a leader leaves them. He says the South Korean government should try to help those Shin has left behind, especially any children who might be living at the Grace Road compound in Fiji.

Hassan says there’s a good chance Grace Road will survive as long as Shin is alive because she can continue to direct the group’s actions from prison.

Lee has given up hope of reconciling with her mother or her mother’s family. Instead, she hopes Pastor Shin will be convicted and her church will fall apart.

“It’s finally coming to an end,” she said. “There will be justice.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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