In early September 2018, Shin Ok-ju, a South Korean pastor, was arrested at Seoul International airport for allegedly convincing 400 of her followers to flee to Fiji, where she then confiscated their passports and detained them. Shin is the leader and founder of the controversial Grace Road Church, often described as a cult and the focus of a South Korean police investigation.
Shin founded the Grace Road Church in 2002 in South Korea and now, despite allegations of abuse and beatings, researchers say there is around 1000 followers. In 2014, after gaining a substantial following in South Korea, the church was uprooted to Fiji. Professor Ji-il Tark of Busan Presbyterian University, closely studies Korean cults and describes how the pastor and her followers believe that a widespread, devastating famine is imminent on the Korean peninsula and that they ‘needed to find a new home to prepare for the second coming of Jesus’. Shin professes to have an authoritative interpretation of the bible, according to journalist John Powers, and she says ‘she alone is able to read it as it’s intended,’ and that ‘Fiji is named in the bible as a paradise where a select few chosen people would be brought’.
For this reason, approximately 400 of her followers sold their homes and the majority of their possessions, quit their jobs and travelled to the so-called promised land. However once they arrived, former members claim their passports were confiscated and that they were prevented from leaving. The followers lived on an 83-acre compound and were watched closely by worshippers who had been selected as ‘guardians’. The church established a company called GR Group and now operates around 60 different businesses in Fiji including restaurants, construction companies, and farms, all of which are staffed by followers.
In a documentary about Grace Road that aired in South Korea at the end of August 2018, a number of former members detailed how they were physically abused and exploited for their labour. Powers reported, ‘They say they weren’t paid, they were treated as slaves, there’s one person on film who claims they would work 14 hours a day starting at 5:30am and then when people started to physically break down they would be sent back to Korea.’
The most alarming of the allegations against Shin are those of intense physical abuse and ritual beatings. The Guardian recently released footage shared with them by South Korean police, of Shin abusing and hitting her followers during her sermons, pulling and cutting their hair, and coercing members to slap one another. In one video she grabs a member by the head, forces them to the ground and cuts their hair. She tells the congregation it is because the follower has a demon inside them. In another video, two men restrain another member who Shin slaps repeatedly. A third video shows what appears to be a teenage daughter and her mother slapping one another while being admonished by Shin. The shocking videos confirm many of the stories of former members who say they were often assaulted and encouraged to assault other followers as a means of publicly reproving those who had sinned.
Within the church, the beatings are known as ‘threshing floors.’ A spokesperson for the Grace Road Group argued that these occurrences were simply a means of biblically rebuking sinners. The spokesperson said, “Threshing floor is written throughout the whole Bible … Grace Road Church alone has carried out the perfectly biblical threshing floor.”
In the documentary, multiple witnesses spoke of seeing a 70-year-old man beaten by several group members at length while in Fiji. One witness describes how he was violently hit over 600 times to the point that he could barely walk. He then returned to South Korea where a doctor told him that he had suffered a subdural hematoma, a blood clot that forms underneath one of the protective layers of the brain and occurs as a result of a severe head injury. One year later, the man died.
The church has repeatedly denied any connection to the man’s death, maintaining that he died as a result of an unrelated illness. In a statement released after his death, the church said, “If the man indeed died from being beaten hundreds of times, would his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren stay happily in the church that supposedly beat their husband and father?” The man’s son, Arum Song, features in the documentary and talks about his father’s death with little emotion citing liver failure as the cause of his death.
Following Shin’s arrest, Fijian and South Korean authorities conducted a joint raid on the church in Fiji and arrested several other members as part of the forced labour investigation. While they were eventually released without charge, the investigations are ongoing. However, the Fiji government has told local media stations that there was no need to investigate the company’s labour practices further while the leader of the opposition, Biman Prasad of the National Federation Party, argued that there needs to be a full public inquiry. His concern lies with how the GR Group was able to obtain licenses to operate business. He told reporters, “Unless the report of the investigation is laid out to the public there will always be suspicion as to how they were able to get in to all these different businesses and how they are getting government contracts.”
The problem is the formidable power that the GR Group wields in Fiji and its strong connection to the government. Currently, the church’s construction company is in charge with renovating and extending the president’s official residence as well as building a new office for the prime minister.
Wilfred Regunamada, a spokesman for the Methodist Church of Fiji, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program, “That’s why we are really concerned, that this movement is not only a movement that stands by its own, but it’s really connected to the government system here, which for us as local citizens, it’s hard to get these kind of leases just like that. They’re just getting the lease by negotiating with landowners and then our Government doesn’t say anything about it.”
The Methodist Church has warned its own members about Grace Road, labelling it as a cult that church-goers should be cautious of. Mr. Regunamada said, “Some of our people who worked with the church, or the movement, reported that their system is like a dictatorship system where people are scared, even the locals who work for them.”
Shin had previously made headlines in 2014 when she was sued for six million dollars by an American man. The 27-year-old man suffered from mental illness and Shin attempted to cure his schizophrenia. In what the man’s lawyer, Daniel Schofield, describes as a ‘horror story’, the man was duct-taped to a bed during a prayer ritual that took place in a basement. He developed gangrene and, as a result, had to have his leg amputated. Mr Schofield told Pacific Beat, “This organization is very scary … the people who are involved seem to be so wrapped up in it that they become powerless.” He described how members follow the organization blindly, losing the ability to help themselves. As a result of the trauma, his condition worsened significantly and he moved into care at a nursing home.
Shin is yet to be prosecuted but former members hope that the investigation will reveal more evidence about the violence she inflicted on her followers. What is certain is the physical, psychological and financial damage she has caused to people who were looking to find a sense of community. Whether Shin’s arrest will loosen the church’s grip on the Fijian government is yet to be seen but with so many businesses operating across the country, it is unlikely the GR Group will be overthrown any time soon. What one can hope for is that the footage of Shin’s violence is widely circulated enough to ensure that new followers are not able to be recruited and those who have been affected by such beatings are able to return home.
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