File photo - Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Gapyeong, South Korea - Sun Myung Moon, the self-styled messiah from South Korea who founded the controversial Unification Church and a business empire spanning from cars to sushi, died Monday at the age of 92.

Moon, who was hospitalised with complications from pneumonia more than two weeks ago, died shortly before 2.00am (17.00GMT on Sunday) at a hospital in the church's headquarters in Gapyeong, east of Seoul, Moon's spokesman told AFP.

The religious leader, who became a US resident, had been on life support since Friday after suffering critical organ failure that a church statement had described as “irreversible”.

Born to a farming family in 1920 in what is now North Korea, Moon said he was inspired by a vision of Jesus at age 15.

Rejected by Korean Protestant churches, he founded the Unification Church in 1954 and built it into a global religious movement that now claims three million members worldwide.

Denounced by detractors as a cult that brainwashed its followers - known derisively as “Moonies” - the church was renowned for its mass weddings that married thousands of couples in sports stadium ceremonies presided over by Moon.

The couples were largely unknown to each other having been personally paired up by Moon - sometimes from different nationalities with no common language.

One of the largest ceremonies, held in Seoul's Jamsil Stadium in 1992, saw 30 000 couples simultaneously tie the knot.

Church spokesman An Ho-Yeul told AFP that Moon's funeral would likely be held on September 15, although a precise schedule had yet to be drawn up.

As the church rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, it spawned a parallel multi-billion dollar business empire encompassing dozens of firms involved in construction, heavy machinery, food, education, the media and even a professional football club.

Its media holdings include the Washington Times newspaper and the United Press International news agency, and it also dominates the fishing and distribution industry supplying sushi outlets in the United States.

A church-affiliated firm, Pyeonghwa (Peace) Motors, established a joint carmaking business in North Korea in 1999.

Throughout his life, Moon assiduously courted political leaders in what his critics said was a strategy to procure influence and legitimacy for his church which has been condemned as heretical by some Christian organisations.

In 1974 he met President Richard Nixon at the White House and urged Americans to forgive their leader for the Watergate scandal.

In December 1991, he travelled to North Korea to meet the communist country's then leader Kim Il-Sung for talks on inter-Korean economic cooperation projects and the reunion of separated families from the North and South.

Moon saw his role as completing the unfulfilled mission of Jesus to restore humanity to a state of spiritual purity.

The teachings of the Unification Church - set up by Moon in Seoul and officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification - are based on the Bible but with new interpretations.

In official church literature, Moon is referred to as the “True Father” and the “one and only messiah in human history”.

“Moon's view of God is quintessentially Korean, combining Shamanist passion and Confucian family patterns in Christian form,” wrote Seoul-based author Michael Breen in his book “The Koreans”.

“His God is the miserable parent who suffers in lonely agony in a world of unfilial and evil children.”

Moon's emergence as a significant religious leader was regularly beset by legal problems.

Having moved to the United States in 1972, he was indicted on tax evasion charges in 1981, in what his followers denounced as an official conspiracy to force him out of the country.

He was convicted and served more than a year in federal prison.

Moon returned to live in South Korea in 2006, although he continued to travel regularly to the United States.

He was first admitted to the intensive-care unit at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul in mid-August but was shifted to a church hospital after doctors said his kidneys had ceased to function and his liver was deteriorating rapidly.

“He has overworked in recent months despite his age, having travelled to the US every month,” Moon's spokesman said.

Moon had 14 children with his current wife and several are involved in his empire. Hyung Jin Moon, youngest of his seven sons, succeeded his father as the church's most senior leader in 2008 at the age of 28. - Sapa-AFP