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Liberal Democratic Party members of the Miyagi prefectural assembly during an inspection of the construction site for an undersea tunnel in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, in 2017. Photo: Facebook

Japan-South Korea undersea tunnel project hits dead end over Unification Church ties

  • Project to link northern Kyushu with South Korea via 235km tunnel was the brainchild of Unification Church founder Moon Sun-myung
  • Japanese politicians distance themselves from project after church’s controversial donation drives came to light following killing of former leader Shinzo Abe
A three-decade-old project supported by a controversial church to construct an undersea tunnel that aimed to connect Japan and South Korea has hit a dead end after the group’s funding operations and its ties with politicians came under scrutiny.

In 1986, the Unification Church-backed International Highway Foundation began work to drill an inclined shaft through a mountain in Karatsu, northwestern Japan’s Saga prefecture.

At an estimated cost of 10 trillion yen (US$71 billion), the 235km tunnel linking northern Kyushu with South Korea was the brainchild of church founder Moon Sun-myung.

Japan to investigate coercion in ‘spiritual sales’ by Unification Church

The Asahi newspaper reported that by 2007, the underpass, six metres wide, had reached about 540 metres in length. Further drilling was halted after the pit hit the land-sea boundary.

Japanese politicians – who once promoted the plan as a likely sign of unity between two countries at loggerheads over historical and territorial disputes – had sought to distance themselves from the church after its dodgy donation drives came to light following the killing of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in July.

Abe’s attacker told police he had a grudge against the church due to his bankrupt mother’s massive donations, and believed the slain politician had ties with it.

Since then, several followers have come forward and accused the church of demanding hefty donations and pressuring them to buy various items for exorbitant prices.

The government later launched a telephone consultation service for people affected by the church’s actions.

Unification Church founder Moon Sun-myung (left) and his wife join hands to bless couples during a mass wedding ceremony in Seoul in 2002. Moon died in 2012. Photo: AFP

Moon, a self-declared messiah who died in 2012, started the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. It claims to have about 600,000 followers in Japan and has branches in various countries.

According to the Asahi, several local councils had supported the project that received more than 10 billion yen in donations from the church and its followers.

However, the International Highway Foundation could not take the project forward due to difficulty in attracting donors and strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul, the Asahi said.

Flags fluttering outside a branch facility of the Unification Church in Seoul. Photo: AFP

In 2017, the foundation formed the Japan-South Korea tunnel promotion council at a meeting in Tokyo.

“Let’s take a bullet train from Tokyo to Seoul,” the foundation’s chief Eiji Tokuno was quoted as saying at the gathering whose delegates included lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Kyodo last week said at least 146 LDP lawmakers had dealings with the church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

More than 100 Japan lawmakers had links with Unification Church: survey

The church-affiliated infrastructure initiative also caused unease in the government.

“I believe the vision for the tunnel is quite absurd,” land minister Tetsuo Saito said last month, adding Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration had nothing to do with the project.

A lawyer for former church followers said the group used the tunnel project to exploit donors.

“The church took followers to the test drilling site on many backstage tours,” Hiroshi Hirata told the Asahi. “It gave the impression to followers that the church was committed to a significant activity and has been used as a pretext for soliciting donations to fund its activities.”