The death of a Protestant theologian who attained prominence as a severe critic of pseudo-religious sects has focused attention on the state of the Korean religious community.
Reverend Tahk Myeong-hwan, 56, was beaten and stabbed to death near his apartment house in northern Seoul the night of Feb. 18 in a possible retaliatory attack by a fanatic from a certain quasi-religious sect.
An estimated 300-400 sects or cults are currently thriving outside established religious structures in Korea, according to scholars of religions. Some scholars refer to these groups as "new religions."
Many of the cults are formed around a single, charismatic individual. Much scandal has resulted from former members or relatives of members of such groups charging the leaders with fraud and manipulation of followers. These are the type Reverend Tahk made a 30-year career out of exposing.
Reverend Tahk was slain only three days after he appeared on television criticizing the pseudo-Christian Yongsaeng-gyo (everlasting life Church), whose leader was arrested on charges of fraud in early February.
The night he was murdered, Reverend Tahk was returning home from a meeting with former Yongsaeng-gyo members and the human rights committee of the opposition Democratic Party in Anyang, south of Seoul.
Many social and religious leaders mourned his death. Among them were Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou Hwan of Seoul; Reverend Han Kyung-jik of the Yongnak Presbyterian Church; Reverend Song Wolju, a Buddhist leader; and Kim To-hyun, vice minister for culture and sports.
Since establishing the International Religious Research Institute in the 1960s to battle pseudo-religions, Reverend Tahk had been threatened, attacked or injured more than 70 times because of his intensive and caustic exposes.
Since the turn of the century, a large number of sects or new religions have taken root in this country, leading one sociologist to label generally homogeneous South Korea "the supermarket of world religions."
About 1.5 million people adhere to these new religions, according to Lee Kwang-ho, professor emeritus at Chonbuk University in the southern provincial capital of Chonju. Some put the figure at 2 million.
In his 1992 book "General Guide to New Religions in Korea," Lee identifies 390 pseudo-religious sects. He says 78 are associated with Buddhism, 76 with Christianity and 36 are cults for Tangun, the founding father of Korea. Of the latter, 10 are of foreign origin, according to the book.
The scandals caused by some of these groups rock society from time to time.
The foremost example was the Dami Missionary Church in 1992. Its leader declared that the world would end Oct. 28, 1992, and he persuaded followers to turn over billions of won in cash and property to him.
When police arrested him on fraud charges, they found securities and bonds scheduled to mature in 1995.
Some religious researchers say the mushrooming of pseudo-religions mirrors the insecurity and vulnerability of Korean society overshadowed by materialism and false messiahs.