Leveraging religion into money and death

The Korean ferry Sewol that abruptly capsized and sank last spring sank because of an act of god … that is, the depredations of a scummy Christian cult. A story in the NY Times today summarizes the causes. The company that ran the ferry was a front for a religious cult run by Yoo Byung-eun, called the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea. He had a whole network of enterprises, all funneling millions of dollars into the pockets of Yoo and his family. One of the ways they profited was by cutting corners on everything, including safety.

Scores of cabins and even an art gallery laden with marble were added to the ferry’s upper decks, making the ship top-heavy. So much extra cargo was crammed on board that there was sometimes no space to secure it properly with chains and lashings. And, prosecutors say, the ferry’s crucial ballast water, needed to balance all the additional weight, was deliberately drained so that the vessel would not sit too low — a telltale sign to inspectors that the ferry was dangerously overloaded to bring in more money.

“It was a miracle that the ship actually sailed as far as it did; it could have tipped over any time,” said Kim Woo-sook, dean of the graduate school at Mokpo National Maritime University. “For them, cargo was cash.”

The art gallery was there to feed Yoo’s monstrous ego — he fancied himself an artist, and with so much cash flowing through his hands, he spent millions to get his photographs displayed at the Louvre. He claimed to be just about everything.

Mr. Yoo, who in his guise as Ahae cultivated an air of mystery by only allowing himself to be photographed from behind or the side, is described by the website of Ahae Press as a sort of renaissance man: “an inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmental activist, martial artist, painter, sculptor, poet, and photographer.”

Con artist. Murderer. Ruthless exploiter. Christian. Or at least, someone who saw Christianity as another easy gimmick to prey on the rubes.

But hey, they spent some money on safety.

In one of their more damning findings, prosecutors say that so much money was being siphoned away from the ferry company to Mr. Yoo and his relatives that it was starved of funds and spent just $2 last year on safety training for the Sewol’s crew members. The money went to buy a paper copy of a certificate.

There is no justice, though. The elder Yoo’s rotting corpse was found in his garden, cause of death unknown. Most of his family (apparently one son is still on the run), who all profited from his schemes, have been arrested so at least there’s that.


  1. dhall says

    Maybe a suicide to avoid arrest and disgrace? Although Christians who kill themselves aren’t supposed to go to heaven . . .

  2. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    And 312 people died. :(

  3. says

    Or at least, someone who saw Christianity as another easy gimmick to prey on the rubes.

    With the runaway success of the Moonies, Jesus became a pretty popular business model in South Korea. I’m currently living in a city there with, so I’ve been told, the highest concentration of “churches” in the nation. Even in large cities like Seoul, you can usually find at least one near every apartment complex.

    Unfortunately, they have a lot of their hooks in both the chaebols (The big multi-national corporations like Samsung that actually run the government here) and the politicians themselves. I can’t remember the details, but they got a more open immigration policy squashed because it might allow more homosexuals into the country. Anyway, horrible people.

  4. kevinalexander says

    Haven’t you heard of the Prosperity Gospel? God wants you to have MONEY!!!
    If you have to kill a few people, so what? Jesus is just calling them home….or not. Some people he sends to burn forever for not wanting money enough.

  5. Larry says

    Our psychopathic xtian cults here in the US could learn a whole lot from these guys about grifting and using Jebus as money attractor. Lets hope that their xenophobic aversion to people not exactly like them will prevent them from ever doing so.

  6. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    So, williamgeorge, that’ll be an alias then?


  7. redwood says

    I’m living “next door” in Japan and there are many similarities between the two countries and many big differences as well, including a lasting enmity by Koreans against Japan for subjugating the country for 35 years at the beginning of last century. However, one huge difference is the percentage of Christians in each country. Christians make up almost 30% of the population in South Korea, behind only the Philippines and East Timor in Asia. In Japan, it’s estimated at around 1% to 3% of the population is Christian, although a number of prime ministers have belonged to that faith. I certainly appreciate the paucity of Christians here, as well as the lack of interest in religion of any kind. Many Japanese might self-identify as Buddhist or Shinto, but they don’t actively practice those faiths. It’s more of a cultural association.

  8. lpetrich says

    Top-heavy with marble art works? That reminds me of the ancient city of Sybaris, a Greek colony in southern Italy about 2500 years ago. The Sybarites got a reputation for extravagant luxury, thus our word “sybaritic”. An anecdote about them is that they taught their horses to dance to some music, but when they got into a fight with some neighbors, those neighbors played that music and made the Sybarites’ horses dance. Thus being the Sybarites’ undoing.

    I was also reminded of Sybaris by Edwina Rogers’s gift wrapping with money paper. But she may have found it difficult to teach her silver Jaguar car to dance.

  9. says

    @Rich Woods,

    I long ago learned to not be afraid of my words. More trouble than it’s worth, though. I probably should have thought of one back in the 90s.

  10. Francisco Bacopa says

    Mr. Yoo sounds like he would have fit in well with the more famous Kim family in the North.

  11. knowknot says

    @14 williamgeorge

    @Rich Woods,
    I long ago learned to not be afraid of my words. More trouble than it’s worth, though. I probably should have thought of one back in the 90s.


  12. numerobis says

    The company that ran the ferry was a front for a religious cult run by Yoo Byung-eun

    Seems more like the cult was a front for their shipping and other industrial concerns, all of which were run like companies are in the US: for maximum profit. American companies don’t generally funnel money directly to their key owners, but that’s because there’s tax benefits to declaring capital gains or dividends instead of income.

  13. says

    Thanks PZ for looking at this cult and issue.
    If you’re curious, some present and former members have been sharing their experiences on my site dedicated to exposing Korean cults of which there are no shortage. While the misadventures of Yoo are well known, the experiences of the average grassroots members are less well known, especially those who encountered the cult in the US. Those that have posted fall into different camps: from the committed to the well.. opposite, plus some in between that noticed some disturbing aspects but still feel Yoo’s heart was in the right place. I think they’re all worthwhile as they contribute to building a more complete picture of how Yoo operated and how he was able to do what he did.

    The AHAE scam in particular is itself worthy of a movie – a comedy perhaps – which would involve the London Symphony Orchestra, composer Michael Nyman who still seems to be in denial about all this, 2.7 million photos supposedly taken at a rate of one every 30 seconds for 4 years out the same window, Prince Charles who bought some of those photos for God knows how many pounds, Paris’s finest establishments, Kevin Ham the dot.com mogul (perhaps Yoo’s richest follower), and of course a decayed corpse.
    Here are the links if that’s OK:
    Section on Yoo: http://jmscult.com/forum/index.php?board=117.0

  14. David Marjanović says

    Prince Charles who bought some of those photos for God knows how many pounds

    *violent headdesking*

  15. Bryan Long says

    @1 the Catholics aren’t even clear about the suicide deaths anymore. Of course they also supposedly believe in evolution.

    But even as a former Methodist whose father died of suicide I had to deal with someone reassuring me my dad could go to heaven. I wanted to slap her because of course my dad’s death status shouldn’t be any different because he was suffering from depression rather than cancer.

    I guess my point is that we shouldn’t be spreading this meme that suicide means no heaven. Because it ends up being more believed than even the church theology intends and hurts actual people at a time that they need support not their beliefs challenged.

  16. PatrickG says

    @ Bryan Long:

    What meme? It’s the stated position of the Catholic Church. They’ve softened their rhetoric, but they certainly haven’t changed the core teaching. It’s their basic MO: “love the sin, hate the sinner”, “protecting life, not hating women”, “repent and receive forgiveness, just don’t you dare do it in court where we might have to pay damages”, etc.

    But back to suicide. A quick Google search brings up, for instance, the worst versions of Dear Abbey ever. I feel somewhat soiled.

    Catholic Digest

    The Church still teaches that there is a hell, but leaves it to God to decide who should go there. And divine decisions, in this regard, are filtered through divine mercy. Tragedy at the end of this life is no sure sign of an eternal tragedy in the next.

    Catholic Answers:

    Only someone who freely chooses to commit suicide with full knowledge of the gravity of the sinfulness would commit mortal sin by his suicide. Even then, between unconsciousness and final death, God might offer the person one final chance to repent, even if such an opportunity is not apparent to us.

    The position is now that suicide will totally send you to hell, unless that Gawd dude didn’t doze off during that critical “final chance”. Of course, its totally at his discretion even if he’s not snoozing. If he happened to wake up on the wrong side of the cloud this morning, well, off to hell you go!

    Some official language, from one of those links:

    “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC 2283).

    That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Suicide will totes send you to hell — the Church just isn’t going to damn you themselves. But they’ll pray for you, ’cause it’s all up to that God dude now, and he’s totally a merciful god, a-yup, even if we can’t possibly know whether he’s chosen to be merciful. Or how he chooses to be merciful. It’s known to him alone, let’s wash our hands of it.

    Still not convinced? Well, let’s ask the USCCB

    Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice

    A mortal sin is a mortal sin. Pretty sure murder is still hell-worthy? Amusingly, they follow that up almost immediately with:

    Policy makers and the public are not always receptive to appeals to Catholic moral teaching

    Thank Jebus for that. Hopefully that trend intensifies.

    Oh, and just for funsies, here’s an interesting study attempting to determine the number of suicides in Latin American countries that are reported as Death – Cause Undetermined to the WHO because of the stigma surrounding suicide due to Catholic teachings.

    In summary, it’s not a meme, it’s the stated position of the Catholic Church, dressing itself up in insincere, saccharine bromides for more secular societies, but still openly ugly and monstrous where it doesn’t have to hide.

    P.S. Sometimes I realize I haven’t fully shed the scars of Catholic school. Interesting how so many years later I still get so personally invested in these issues.

  17. says

    By the way;

    If the Peter up there is the Peter I’m thinking of, he’s pretty good at uncovering the activities of Korean Jesus Grifters. He’s a good source to listen to.

  18. verimius says

    Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. I disagree. Patriotism is the penultimate refuge of a scoundrel; religion is the last.