SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, now approaching 90, is handing over day-to-day control of his Unification Church to three U.S.-educated sons.
There are some changes afoot in fundraising and boosting membership, the sons say. They are quietly assuming more responsibility in managing a church that has steadily expanded its business and charitable activities.
The youngest, 30-year-old Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, was tapped last year to take over as the church’s religious leader. Moon Kook-jin, 39, is in charge of business ventures in South Korea, while 40-year-old Moon Hyun-jin oversees international operations. The church said all the brothers have Harvard degrees.
Since founding the church in Seoul in 1954, the elder Moon has built a business empire with hundreds of ventures in more than a half-dozen countries, from hospitals and universities to newspapers and even a professional soccer team and ballet troupe.
These include The Washington Times newspaper and the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, as well as an ad agency and ski resort in South Korea, and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the U.S.
There are also ventures in North Korea, where Moon’s ties are strong enough that for his last birthday, the communist country’s leader Kim Jong Il sent roses, lilies and prized wild ginseng. The church’s interests include fledgling automaker Pyeonghwa Motors and the only foreign-owned luxury hotel in Pyongyang.
Baby-faced and soft-spoken, Moon Hyung-jin was born and raised in New York, where he was known as Sean. He admits he’s still growing into his new job.
“When my father asked me to take on this role, I told him this responsibility was a bit much for me,” he said. “He told me not to worry, that many people would help me.”
Since then, the younger Moon says he has carved out some areas of change, including making the church’s fundraising activities more transparent.
Membership is also a key concern. Though the church claims millions of members worldwide, experts say the figure is far lower — no more than 100,000. In South Korea, Unification Church members are far outnumbered by Catholics, Presbyterians and Buddhists.
“We’ve been weak on membership and on figuring out the church’s direction. We’ve been trying to resolve those issues,” Moon Hyung-jin said. “But the church is getting stronger, and church members are happier.”
Asked if his membership drive would include any 120-city world tours like the one his father undertook at age 85, Moon laughed and said he shouldn’t be seen as a successor to his father. “I can’t be compared to my father,” he said. “If people put so much importance in their titles, they become arrogant.”
The younger Moon’s anointment came despite a lapse of faith during his Harvard years, when he said he turned to Buddhism after a brother, Young-jin, died in Reno, Nevada, in 1999, in what authorities called a suicide.
He said his father ordered church members not to criticize him for donning Buddhist robes and shaving his head on campus. “I was hugely moved,” he said. “I had thought my father would kick me out of the church, but he protected me.”
While Moon Hyung-jin preaches in both Korean and fluent English, his style is distinctly American. At a service last month in Seoul broadcast on his Web site, there was more rock than gospel.
“Give it up! Let’s give it up for True Parents!” he proclaimed, using the church terms for the elder Rev. Moon and his wife.
Moon Kook-jin, who has headed the church’s South Korean business operations since 2005, praised his youngest brother. “I think he’s doing a good job,” he told the AP.
A Seoul businessman and owner of the New York-based gun manufacturer Kahr Arms, Moon Kook-jin says he sees no contradiction in owning a weapons factory. “To build a peaceful country, we need the police and an army,” he said, a black Kahr Arms baseball cap perched on his head.
Some analysts say that by anointing a new generation, Moon may ensure the church endures after his death
“Some people say the Unification Church may perish after Moon’s death but I don’t think so,” said Tark Ji-il, a religion professor at Busan Presbyterian University. “It’s more accurate to view them now as a corporate organization uniting people with similar religious beliefs.”