WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fijian authorities on Thursday said they were in the process of deporting six leaders of a South Korean religious sect that a decade ago moved hundreds of followers to Fiji and built a series of thriving businesses into an empire.
But authorities said they were only able to apprehend four of the principals of the Grace Road Church, and that senior director Daniel Kim and another man were on the run.
It’s unclear how the deportations will affect the estimated 400 South Korean adherents who remain in Fiji and the hundreds of local Fijians they employ. Grace Road businesses are prominent across the island country and include farms, restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations and dentists.
The sect first moved to Fiji under Daniel Kim's mother, Shin Ok-ju, who told her followers that Fiji provided a safe haven from impending war and famine. She is currently imprisoned in South Korea after being found guilty of various crimes, including holding followers captive and assaulting them.
Fijian Immigration Minister Pio Tikoduadua told reporters they had successfully deported two of the six leaders back to South Korea while two more had challenged the action in court and had been temporarily released back to a Grace Road farm. He said one of those released was Grace Road's acting president, Lee Sung Jin.
Tikoduadua said that Fiji and South Korea don't have a formal extradition treaty and the deportations — technically called removals — were carried out under his discretion. He said Interpol first issued red notices for the six in 2018 after South Korea had issued arrest warrants.
The move represented a change in attitude toward the sect's leaders under Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who won election in December. Fiji's previous leader, Frank Bainimarama, had embraced the economic successes of the church.
Tikoduadua said the activities of Grace Road Church — which he described as a cult — had always been surrounded by controversy and that the previous government had chosen to ignore the Interpol notices.
“Grace Road as a company has invested heavily in Fiji. We recognize that and we appreciate that,” Tikoduadua said. “But that does not mean to say that things are not being questioned by everybody.”
He said he was currently focused only on the law as it related to the six people in question.
In 2019, a South Korean court found that, in Fiji, Shin forced her followers to work without pay. The work included farming, hairdressing, construction, and restaurant services. They lived together at a facility that separated family members as well as men and women, the court found. Most of the devotee's passports were confiscated.
Shin held a ritualistic event almost every day to get followers to beat each other in the name of “driving away evil spirits.”
The event required followers who allegedly criticized her church or made mistakes in their work to reflect on their behavior with their family members before other followers. After their self-reflection sessions, those family members were required to beat each other’s faces, and other followers sometimes beat them, according to the court ruling.
Shin was sentenced to six years imprisonment in 2019 for assault, fraud, aggravated confinement and child abuse. The term was raised to seven years in a second ruling, and in 2020, South Korea's Supreme Court upheld the longer sentence.
Kim reported from Seoul.