Senior figures question Fiji government’s close links with ‘doomsday’ cult

Shin Ok-ju, founder of Grace Road Church
Shin Ok-ju, founder of Grace Road Church, was jailed for six years in South Korea in 2019 for enslaving some 400 followers in Fiji. Image: Screenshot The Guardian/YouTube/Grace Road/APR

RNZ Pacific

Former prime ministers, an opposition leader, and an ex-central bank governor have added their voices to a growing chorus of concerns about the Fiji government’s “close association” with a Korean doomsday Christian cult that has reportedly benefited from millions of dollars from a state-backed institution.

Award-winning investigative journalism organisations, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Korean Centre for Investigative Journalists (KCIJ), published a major exposé this week, that zeros in on the rapid expansion of the controversial Grace Road Church business empire through Prime Minister Voreqe  Bainimarama’s FijiFirst government’s help.

The two groups have revealed that Grace Road, whose leader Ok-joo Shin is in a Korean prison for “assault, child abuse, and imprisoning church members” and whose top executives remain under international police warrants, has received at least FJ$8.5 million (NZ$6.1m) in loans from the Fiji Development Bank (FDB) since 2015.

The FDB is a government-backed institution established to develop the country’s economy by providing finance to local small and medium agricultural enterprises. But Grace Road, which established as a foreign investor in 2014, started getting FDB loans just a year after it began operations.

According to the OCCRP-KCIJ, that money has helped the sect propel itself into a major entity in the Fijian economy, spreading its footprint throughout the main island of Viti Levu, with plans to develop further.

“The sect now operates the country’s largest chain of restaurants, controls roughly 400 hectares of farmland, owns eight supermarkets and mini marts, and runs five Mobil petrol stations. Its businesses also provide services such as dentistry, events catering, heavy construction, and Korean beauty treatments,” the two investigative groups report.

This map shows Grace Road's expansion
This graphic shows Grace Road’s expansion. Image: OCCRP-KCIJ

‘Red carpet treatment’
The investigations also uncovered Fijian police’s failure to investigate and charge the top leaders of the sect who were arrested four years ago on allegations of human rights abuses of its followers, but were released soon after when “a local court temporarily blocked their deportation”.

“The South Korean police said that the Fijian police had released the Grace Road members after a high-level meeting that included Fiji’s late immigration chief, the prime minister’s personal private secretary, the solicitor-general, and the country’s top prosecutor,” according to OCCRP-KJIC.

OCCRP’s Pacific editor, Aubrey Belford, told RNZ Pacific the core issue with Grace Road in Fiji was the perception it had been given the red carpet treatment by the government.

“They showed up in the country less than 10 years ago and in that time they have managed to build what is now one of the biggest business empires in the country,” Belford said.

“We counted 54 business establishments currently running in the country — 55 If you count the huge farm they have in Navua. They’re really everywhere.”

He said the OCCRP was able to uncover “that no one knew” that FDB provided Grace Road millions of dollars in loans to finance its business aspirations.

Belford said the police investigation into the alleged abuses of its members in Fiji had been ongoing for several years but had “gone nowhere” despite Fijian police officers travelling to Seoul to collect victim statements from key witnesses.

Former church member Yoon-jae Lee with two Fijian police officers
Former church member Yoon-jae Lee with two Fiji police officers. Image: Yoon-jae Lee/RNZ

Former church member Yoon-jae Lee with two Fiji police officers. Image: Yoon-jae Lee

Government dismisses claims
“There is no conspiracy or cover-up here,” Fiji’s Director of Public Prosecution Christopher Pryde told OCCRP-KCIJ.

OCCRP-KCIJ said the South Korean Embassy in Suva declined to be interviewed, citing “the sensitive issues of the matter on Grace Road Church and ongoing Korean-Fijian law enforcement cooperation”.

Fijian authorities have remained quiet about the claims made in the report, but Attorney-General and Economy Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Kahiyum deflected media questions on Tuesday, telling reporters the investigations were “done by some organisation who we have never heard about”.

RNZ Pacific has contacted Grace Road for comment.

But with an election looming, Fijian political leaders are calling for Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum to “come clean” about their dealings with the Korean group.

Former prime ministers Sitiveni Rabuka and Mahendra Chaudhry, who lead the People’s Alliance and the Labour Party respectively; the leader of the major opposition SODELPA, Viliame Gavoka; as well as former Reserve Bank of Fiji Governor Savenaca Narube are all calling for an official inquiry.

Rabuka has labelled the close links between the government and Grace Road a “disgrace”.

“It is a disgrace that this foreign sect whose founder is serving jail time in Korea for abusing its adherents has been given the red carpet treatment by the FijiFirst government,” Rabuka said.

“What equity did they bring as part of the deals to justify the $8.5m lending?” he asked, adding: “It seems that this government will willingly leave Fijians behind for the sake of assisting their own rich foreign friends.”

Cover graphic for the Grace Road cult investigation
Cover graphic for the Grace Road cult investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Korean Centre for Investigative Journalists (KCIJ). Image: OCCRP-KCIJ

Rabuka said his People’s Alliance would launch an investigation into the operations of Grace Road Church if the alliance formed a government after the 2022 election.

Chaudhry said he hoped the findings uncovered by OCCRP would “bring out the truth”.

“Many here have questioned whether the Fiji police investigations into the complaints against the group have been hamstrung by political interference,” Chaudhry said.

“It is believed that a number of powerful people may have personally benefited from the activities of the Grace Road group in return for favours extended to it.”

Chaudhry said the Fiji police investigation was “just a joke”.

“We have raised this issue many times before but without results, because the group appears to have the backing of the government top brass who have not hesitated to defend them even in Parliament,” the Labour leader added.

‘Gravely concerned’
SODELPA’s Gavoka said he was “gravely concerned with revelations” of the investigations.

“There have been unspoken concerns among our people with respect to the fast-growing expansion of the Grace Road business in Fiji, while many are aware of past reports alleging gross abuse of human rights and workers’ rights,” he said.

“SODELPA demands the FijiFirst Government and local authorities act and come clean; and put all these to an end.”

Gavoka is calling on Bainimarama’s government to “declare its interest on Grace Road”.

“We cannot allow such incidences on allegations of criminal conduct on gross violations of human and workers’ rights on our land.”

Former Reserve Bank of Fiji governor and leader of the Unity Fiji party Narube said they had “watched with great concern” the friendly relations between the Bainimarama government and the sect.

“We have seen the rapid expansion of Grace Road into sectors that are reserved for the Fiji citizens and companies,” Narube said.

“We have been informed of the rapid processing of their business applications compared to others. We have seen many foreign workers in jobs that would be easily filled by locals. We are concerned about the allegations of physical and mental abuses within the sect.”

With a general election looming, Narube said a Unity Fiji government would apply the laws fairly and uniformly.

“A Unity Fiji government would therefore investigate the ties between the government and Grace Road to clear all the allegations and perceptions.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

A Grace Road-owned supermarket in the town of Navua
A Grace Road-owned supermarket in the town of Navua. Image: OCCRP
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