Renegade former cult members get property

Seoul, South Korea - An appeals court ruled yesterday that breakaway members of the notorious Aga Dongsan cult can retain their rights to the group's collective assets.

The decision by the Seoul High Court was the first to recognize breakaway believers' rights over a religious organization's properties. The ruling overturned a decision by a lower court. Aga Dongsan immediately rejected the decision and appealed to the Supreme Court.

Founded by Kim Ki-soon in 1982, Aga Dongsan is a religious community consisting of collective farms and factories in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province. It made headlines in 1996 after about 30 members filed a petition with prosecutors asking that the cult be investigated for exploitation of their assets and labor. They also said they suspected cult leaders were involved in murder.

A group of 297 believers donated their wealth to the cult and worked at the group's farms, factories and construction projects free of charge for nearly 20 years.

The collective farm, which first began with 13,223 square meters (3.27 acres) of land, grew to 528,928 square meters. While the land was registered under the individual believers' names on paper, all property was jointly owned by the members.

After a two-year probe, Kim, now 68, was convicted in 1998 of tax evasion, embezzlement and exploitation, receiving four years of imprisonment and a 5.6 billion won ($5.4 million) fine. The Supreme Court, however, acquitted Kim of murder charges, citing lack of evidence.

The number of believers gradually decreased, and Aga Dongsan had only 80 members in 2006. Then, the religious cult filed lawsuits against its estranged believers, claiming that those who left the community should give up their rights to its buildings, including the collective farm.

The group held a general meeting and made the decision, but the members who no longer reside at the Aga Dongsan community were not invited. A group of 10 breakaway members argued that they had no reason to give up their rights, and the Seoul High Court agreed yesterday.

"Because of the leadership's suppression, we physically left the farms, but that does not mean we gave up our rights," the estranged members said. They also argued that they still have the right to attend the cult's decision-making meetings.

"By formally withdrawing their memberships from Aga Dongsan, the former members will be deprived of their wealth accumulated through years of collective labor and become penniless," said Judge Suh Myung-su of the Seoul High Court, who presided the case.

The cult's decision failed to reflect the opinions of the breakaway group of believers, and thus it is invalid.