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For the past month, the Fairfax, Va., office of the Chosun Ilbo, one of the three major Korean-language newspapers in the Washington area, has been flooded with angry phone calls. Readers have demanded to know why the paper is sponsoring a four-day concert at the Kennedy Center that begins tonight and features a Korean children’s dance company called the Little Angels. “Too many calls,” sighs reporter Hyun K. Park, who estimates receiving more than 50, adding that most of the callers are from the dozens of Korean churches that dot Northern Virginia’s Korean corridor, stretching from Annandale to Centreville.
It seems odd that a concert featuring kids performing Korean folk ballads should arouse such ire. And the Chosun Ilbo (actually, its parent company) isn’t exactly going out on a limb by sponsoring the event. Many of the South Korea’s largest conglomerates—Samsung, LG, and Lotte among them—are listed as supporters. Ads for the concert are in regular rotation on Korean cable channels KBS and MBC. The Little Angels press release features glowing endorsements from South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and several U.S. political figures, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and former President Bill Clinton.
Bob Selle, the public-affairs director for the Little Angels tour, says the concert is part of “a thank-you tour to express the gratitude of the Korean people to the 16 nations and their soldiers who fought in the Korean War. The Little Angels decided to arrange this tour under the inspiration of their founder, Reverend Moon.”
Ah. That would be the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial leader of the Unification Church, for which the Little Angels have served as cultural ambassadors since 1962. This would explain the angry calls, as well as how an otherwise obscure and ad hoc group called the Korean War 60th Anniversary Memorial Committee could afford to rent the Kennedy Center’s Opera House at a cost of $83,160 for the four nights.
The most vocal and tenacious leader of the protests has been the Rev. Jang Y. Lee, minister of the Virginia Korean Baptist Church in Fairfax Station. “Other ministers calmed down,” and stopped calling, says Chosun Ilbo reporter Sung Han Kim. “But not Pastor Lee.” Yet as with many in the tight-knit community, Rev. Lee is on friendly terms with the journalists he has been lambasting on the phone, and agreed to sit down for an interview at the offices of the Chosun Ilbo.
Swimming in a too-large tan suit with shoulder pads and sporting a thinning grey pompadour, the 59-year-old Lee could pass for a villain in a 1990s Korean gangster movie. But once he opens his mouth, he feels like more of an Asian Glenn Beck.
Rev. Lee sees communists everywhere. These include the last two presidents of South Korea, Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung–the Nobel laureate known as “Korea’s Nelson Mandela” for being imprisoned and targeted for death by South Korea’s previous military regime. Before coming to the United States, Rev. Lee was, in fact, chief editor of the monthly magazine of South Korea’s Anti-Communist Association. He now splits his time between his church and the American and Korean Friendship National Council, an organization he founded and on whose board Christian-right leader Pat Robertson sits.
So why is Lee upset by dancing 8-year-olds? “Because Moon is the Antichrist,” he explains. Unification theology, which holds that the Korean peninsula is the holy land and the Rev. Moon is the second coming of Christ, is widely considered heretical by Christians like Lee.
But Lee’s second accusation against Moon is more surprising: that he’s a North Korean sympathizer. Originally from the North, Moon was jailed and tortured by that nation’s Communist regime before fleeing to the South. As his church grew from a single cardboard shed in a refugee camp in Pusan to Japan, the U.S., and other countries, so, too, did his fortunes, which he has used to bankroll conservative political activities worldwide. Moon took out full page newspaper ads defending Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal, and in 1982 he founded the Washington Times, into which Moon reportedly dumped $2 billion without ever seeing a profit, before finally putting the paper up for sale last month.
Yet the Rev. Lee might have a point. Moon’s politics have softened in his old age, as he’s tried to position himself as a peacemaker between the two Koreas, still technically at war. In 1991, he made a homecoming pilgrimage to the North, meeting Communist former President Kim Il Sung and negotiating a hotel-investment deal that injected millions of dollars into the cash-strapped regime. The Kim dynasty has reciprocated, building a shrine at Moon’s birthplace in Jeongju. When Moon turned 80, Kim Jong Il sent him a birthday present of wild ginseng.
The Little Angels concert is billed as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Sixty-year anniversaries are particularly important in Korean numerology, so the tribute in itself is not unwelcome. But the Rev. Lee’s and other Korean congregations consider a concert to be an inappropriate means of remembering a normally solemn occasion. Says Lee, “On Memorial Day, we pray to God. Very sad. But singing, dancing—no good.”
And coming on the heels of North Korea’s March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, which killed 46 sailors, the timing of the concert is especially bad. Yet it’s unclear how far the controversy will extend. Asked whether he plans to hold demonstrations against the Unification Church or the Kennedy Center, the Rev. Lee is coy. “I have a short-term plan,” he says, smiling. “But I don’t want to tell you.”