Last Sunday, many Christians in Korea held online worship services from their homes, as requested by the government. Sitting before their computers or holding smartphones, they listened to sermons by their pastors standing at the pulpit in the empty chapel and prayed individually for an early end to the pandemic.
It was the second time this year that the churchgoers were forced to stay home since they had the first such experience in March when outbreaks surged in the nation. At that time, Christians here largely accepted the stay-at-home order, as Jesus told them to submit to governing authorities. But their response this week was not wholly compliant.
Many of them took the administration measure as revealing the ruling bloc’s antagonism toward Christian society in general, after its members’ increasingly vocal protests against the Moon Jae-in government. Some expressed doubts at the rising official figures of infections these days, regarding them as false pretexts to justify authorities’ ban of church services.
President Moon showed an unusually stiff face when he sternly warned that whoever ignores the counterinfection protocols would be criminally punished. He emphasized that “the freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression cannot be insisted” on to the point that they cause serious damage to the public interest. He deplored the Gwanghwamun Square rallies on the Aug. 15 National Day for defying local authorities’ prohibition.
In drizzling rain, tens of thousands of people from across the country -- largely comprising church groups -- gathered in central Seoul to call for Moon’s exit for the perceived overall incompetence of his administration, citing massive unemployment, galloping apartment prices and subservience to North Korea. The Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, pastor of Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, was again leading the protest.
But the firebrand pastor himself emboldened the president to take the tough stance on Christian churches as major obstacles to preventive measures. Jun’s church alone has reported about 1,000 coronavirus cases out of the total 18,000 so far. The Rev. Jun was arrested for violating anti-epidemic rules, but was freed on bail.
Jun is actually an embarrassment to orthodox Christian churches, which generally shun direct political involvement. Yet, some individual members of Seoul’s conservative churches liked Jun’s style of attacking the Moon Jae-in administration since last year, when he led monthslong nightly vigils near the presidential mansion. But critics say his radical actions rather split the anti-government front in the April general election, allowing a landslide victory for the ruling party.
The pandemic, as in many other countries around the world, has had significant political implications here. As infection figures rose rapidly in the spring, fear seized the ruling force prior to the general election. But effective epidemic control efforts plus timely release of emergency relief funds to all citizens helped the government party collect more votes than expected against the leaderless opposition.
Securing 176 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, the Democratic Party of Korea exhibited audacity and arbitrariness to monopolize chairmanships in all 17 subcommittees and to summarily pass major legislations one after the other. While the pandemic kept industrial activities down, apartment prices in the capital city area added millions of won day by day under hasty control measures.
The ruling force’s post-election euphoria was marred by sexual harassment scandals involving the mayors of the two largest metropolises, each of whom belonged to the Democratic Party. Busan Mayor Oh Geo-don resigned, to be followed by the shocking suicide of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, a highly regarded presidential aspirant. These incidents humiliated the ruling party and the president’s approval rate fell below the 50 percent mark for the first time.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s ignoble power contest with popular Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol that stirred the higher echelon of law enforcement further caused erosion of public trust in the Moon Jae-in government. As the minister’s name was added to the list of the ruling force’s negative assets in the public mind, topped by her immediate predecessor Cho Kuk, the main opposition United Future Party steadily recovered popularity to pull back neck and neck with the Democratic Party this month.
Twenty months are left before the May 2022 presidential election. The chances for the Democratic Party to remain in power will depend on three things: First, how the people will evaluate the authorities’ efforts to control the pandemic; second, the capability of the main opposition party to consolidate support from the divided right-wingers; and third, what political direction the Christian community will choose.
Like the Shincheonji Church in Daegu that was the epicenter of coronavirus outbreaks in March, Jeon’s Sarang Jeil Church became the major target of public blame, and authorities now have a plausible justification for controlling Christian church practices across the country. But they need to be extremely cautious in taking measures affecting nearly 20 percent of Korea’s total population.
Crucial in foreseeing the future course of Korean politics will be the interim polls next April that will include by-elections in Seoul and Busan to fill the vacancies left by the late Mayor Park and disgraced Oh. The opposition party is sure to win easy victories as long as it puts forward well-qualified candidates for the leading mayoral seats that both bear the stigma of the previous occupants.
The pandemic has been a double-edged sword here, as people’s trust in their government swung quickly in accordance with the changing numbers of infections and fatalities over the past several months. Equally volatile are the attitudes of Christians who now speak of state retaliation for their anti-government stance.
The association of Christian churches in Busan declared defiance of the municipal order to keep their chapels empty last Sunday. Some 15 percent of the believers held Sunday services in their churches as usual. But the Rev. Kim Kyung-jin of Somang Presbyterian Church in Seoul warned his congregation that churchgoers’ objections could only alienate them from the rest of society. “The Lord wants us to love and sacrifice for others in this time of adversity,” he said via an internet sermon.
If the government continues to interfere with church activities in the war on coronavirus, Korean Christians could escalate their complaints to claims of religious persecution. Opposition unity could then be accelerated to include Christian society, and the leftist force will lose a significant portion of the votes they had gained in April. They may just hope for an early retreat of the disease.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times. -- Ed.