Im Hwa Ja, bewildered and depressed, has seen her entire world collapse around her. Since last November, her husband of 25 years, a prosperous director of a book-publishing firm, abruptly quit his job, sold the house, began beating her and now, to keep himself "clean," refuses to sleep with her. Im's three sons, the pride of her life, dropped out of their university.
As if a malevolent spirit had infected the men she loved and turned them into strangers, they began to shun her as Satan, and they spend much of their days and nights praying at a mysterious church in Seoul.
They--along with an estimated 20,000 other South Koreans--are waiting for the beginning of the end of the world.
In an apocalyptic movement that is rocking this devout nation and fast becoming an urgent social crisis, scores of people are selling their homes, quitting jobs and schools, abandoning families and even having abortions to prepare for Oct. 28. That's the day they believe that 144,000 believers around the world will be lifted into heaven in a phenomenon called "the rapture," prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
The event is supposed to set off seven years of war, famine and other scourges that will virtually annihilate the Earth and set the stage for the triumphant Second Coming of Christ.
But this belief--which a leading proponent, Minister Lee Jang Rim, has celebrated as "good news"--has been condemned as blasphemy by mainstream churches and by civil authorities as a dangerous cult movement tearing families apart, ruining lives and, in some case, even ending them. Already three suicides related to the rapture have occurred. The darkest fears are that should the rapture not materialize, the movement is preparing for mass suicides, similar to those committed in Guyana in 1978 by hundreds of followers of the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple.
For instance, some followers--including Im's three sons--are being prepared for "martyrdom" by being told they will die painlessly and, like Jesus Christ, rise again after three days. Lists of appointed "martyrs" are said to have been prepared with names of believers and the precise date and places of their deaths. Some have already disappeared from Seoul, and families fear that they have been transported to North Korea and other places for sacrifice.
"This is a serious crime, not to mention a sin, because they are totally destroying happy families," said Im, who adds that the ordeal has transformed her from an optimist to a despairing, tearful woman.
The movement is believed to have spread to Korean communities overseas, including the Maranata Mission headed by Ahn Byung O in Los Angeles. There, according to Korean press reports here, a 36-year-old Korean-American died Sept. 8 from malnutrition caused by fasting.
Although government officials here initially took a hands-off position, saying they could not interfere with religious freedom, mounting social pressure has forced them into action. Last week, Seoul police arrested Lee and charged him with fraud--misappropriating $430,000 in church funds--and illegal possession of $26,711 in American currency.
The police have also booked 29 others on charges of illegally passing out propaganda and are monitoring doomsday churches and evangelists around the clock.
And the Defense Ministry, whose military ranks have also been hit by a sudden surge in deserters and applications for early discharge, recently announced that it would begin screening all material being carried into the barracks by soldiers. In addition, the ministry plans to begin educational programs for a "sound religious life," a spokesman announced recently.
But the actions may have little impact. Lee's Tami Mission in Seoul and its 1,700 followers, for instance, are merely one church among what cult expert Tahk Myeong Whan estimates to be more than 300 congregations in South Korea spreading the rapture prophecy.
And no amount of social censure seems able to sway the stalwart, many of whom write off opposition as Satan's trickery. During a recent visit to Lee's headquarters in Seoul, 600 believers packed three floors of the church building from 10 p.m. to midnight and listened enraptured to a videotape lecture by the preacher boasting of triumphing over previous police detentions.
"My charge was spreading good news," Lee thundered, as believers ranging from infants to the elderly murmured praises and pored over Bibles. "But we are not afraid. God's angels are with us."
Spokesman Choi Hyung Jin, who joined the church two years ago, said the Tami Mission does not endorse abortion, divorce, martyrdom or quitting schools and jobs as do more radical sects. "We are just trying to remain as clean and holy as possible," he said.
Why a well-educated society such as South Korea would be gripped by such an extremist movement has left analysts groping for explanations.
"People who are susceptible to this are people looking for an escape: students suffering under the massive burden of studies, men who have failed in business and women who suffer from society's maltreatment," said Tahk, director of the International Religions Research Institute.
Han Wan Sang, a professor of social policy at Seoul National University, said the movement's success reflects a deep despair among Koreans. Although the economic growth rate is bounding ahead at nearly 7%--one of the highest in the world--Han said many Koreans nonetheless feel insecure and anxious that the "economic dragon has gone idle." They are also troubled by a lack of progress in improving ties with North Korea and uncertainty over the domestic political situation, he said.
"They try to see the rapture as a sign of hope amid the disorderly state of society," Han said.
The rapture prophecy was first popularized here by Lee in a 1988 book. He based his preaching on so-called revelations from various Korean children and his own visions in prayer. But the movement did not begin gaining large numbers of followers until last year, with conversions intensifying in recent months.
About 20% of South Koreans are Christian, and religion has long played a deep role in their society.
But mainstream preachers say the rapture prophecy is a gross misinterpretation of the Bible, which states that no one knows when the Second Coming will occur, and they complain that it is smearing the reputation of respectable churches. Other biblical misinterpretations have caused other tragedies, including that of one woman who aborted a 7-month-old fetus, Tahk said.
In April, Tahk said, he received a call from an elderly woman in tears. Her son, the family's only male offspring in three generations, had married a woman but the couple could not conceive a child for three years. Finally, they did. But one day, the daughter-in-law, seven months pregnant, "left home early in the morning with a big belly and came home late at night without one," Tahk said.
When the mother-in-law screamed at her, the woman calmly responded that she was going to be taken up in the rapture. And, she added, according to the Gospel, women should not be pregnant during the Earth's final days.
The case was one of several abortions about which he has been contacted, said Tahk, who has counseled hundreds of victims and victims' families in an effort to deprogram and comfort them.
He has taken daggers away from at least two men who, having been deprogrammed, were so incensed that they planned to murder their preachers.
Kim Ho Sung, a hotel employee in Seoul, says he may lose control of himself should anything happen to his only son, 13-year-old Kim Joon Ung.
The boy was taken into a rapture sect by his mother in Pusan, southeast of Seoul, and the two have already sold their house and rented a room across from the church, where they spend every morning and night. They have also discarded their winter clothes, since they don't believe they will need them after Oct. 28, the prophesied date of the rapture. Although Kim has repeatedly met his son and tried to dissuade him, the son instead is urging his father to join.
"If I lose my beloved son, I'll become a radical capable of doing anything," Kim said during a standing-room-only hearing recently on the problem sponsored by three mainstream churches.
Lee Seung En has already lost her 22-year-old son, Cho Jae Ho. After joining the Sung Hwa Mission in Seoul, quitting school and heading to the mountains for "survival training," Cho disappeared from Seoul in March. She has been told that he was taken to North Korea to be martyred.
But for Im, who has been forced to take housekeeping work to survive and to endure beatings from her husband for not believing, there is nothing else to do but make peace with herself and her fate.
"I've done everything humanly possible to stop them," she said with a weary shrug. "Even if something terrible happens, I have to lead my own life."