What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
In the past week, what seems like a second wave of Covid-19 has begun in Korea. The Dissolve has been providing regular Covid-19 updates; therefore, it seems unnecessary to go into more detail about how the numbers are growing and why. This week’s installment in our ‘What They Said’ series will instead focus on how this new wave of pandemic is being received by the Korean public and Korean churches, which are facing blame for the recent spread of Covid-19.
Sarang Jeil (literally meaning Love [is] Greatest) Church was the one making most headlines this past week, as the church has become a growing cluster with over 900 related cases as of August 25.
The church’s head pastor Jun Kwang-hoon has been, for lack of a better word, a vocal critic of the Moon Jae-in administration, particularly for President Moon’s conciliatory policy toward North Korea. Known for his right-wing political views and controversial remarks, Jun has been holding rallies in Gwanghwamun Square, protesting against every aspect of the Moon administration. In March, he was indicted on charges of violating election laws ahead of the parliamentary elections in April by asking the participants at his rallies to vote against the Democratic Party, which was illegal because the official campaigning period had not begun. He was released on bail in April on the condition that he does not take part in rallies related to his case or other illegal rallies.
Yet on August 15, Jun attended the Liberation Day rally in Gwanghwamun, once again condemning the Moon administration. His attendance at the rally was controversial and possibly in violation of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, as he had been informed by the authorities to self-quarantine due to an outbreak at his church.
On August 17, health officials confirmed that Jun had tested positive and been placed in isolation, but that has not deterred him from perpetrating fake news.
In an interview with Christian Today, a politically right-wing Christian newspaper, Jun claimed that his church has been a target of “virus terrorism”.
“When you look at what’s happening in other churches, Sincheoji in Daegu had 10 confirmed cases [on the first day], then 20, then 40, then 100. That’s how this should progress. But our church had 250 at once. I can’t accept this at all, so I had a strong suspicion that this was definitely virus terrorism. And before this happened, about a week ago, five people told me that someone was going to attack us with virus terrorism. I thought, no, that can’t be, but now that we’ve been hit… But so far I only had suspicions and no evidence. These scoundrels have planned this. They’ve planned it. And Moon Jae-in, Lee Nak-yeon, and Chung Sye-kyun, I’m going to report them all.”
— Jun Kwang-hun, head pastor of Sarang Jeil Church,, August 18, 2020.
His claim, however, is not true, as the first case from the church was confirmed on August 12, and the number of cases increased to 13 on August 14, 43 on August 15, and 193 on August 16.
The Democratic Party has pointed to Sarang Jeil Church and the August 15 rally as two major clusters of infection, but the church and those who were involved in the rally have protested against such a view, claiming that the government was “denouncing an individual and certain groups, churches, and engaging in a witch hunt to cover up their own mistakes and shift all blame” on Jun and Sarang Jeil Church.
As noted in the August 19 Covid-19 update on The Dissolve, a message was circulated, telling participants to turn off their phones and refrain from using credit cards to escape tracing, and claiming that the government would be spreading fake news about large scale outbreaks. As a result, many of the church members were unreachable, and those who were able to be reached refused to be tested. Several videos of phone conversations between possible Covid-19 patients and public clinic employees circulated online, enraging the public. In one such conversation, a member of Sarang Jeil Church is heard claiming that many church members were testing negative in private hospitals, even though they originally tested positive in public clinics, which are run by the government.
“Now things are turning around. [Pastor Jun Kwang-hun] tested positive in a public clinic, but when he was tested again at a [private] hospital, it turned out negative. So Sarang Jeil Church has decided to file a lawsuit against the government about these people who tested negative but were treated this way by public clinics. So you should all prepare [to get sued].”
— A member of Sarang Jeil Church, in a phone call with an employee of a public clinic in Incheon, August 17, 2020.
In another video, a woman had called a public clinic in Seocho District in Seoul to complain about the public clinics allegedly fabricating testing results.
“About August 15…. Everyone involved received a text message saying that they needed to go to a public clinic to get [tested], so they went and got [tested], and a lot of people tested positive. So they thought they should get tested again. So they went to hospitals and got [tested] again, and most of them tested negative. People are sharing text messages from these people.”
— A woman calling to complain about public clinics allegedly fabricated testing results, August 19, 2020.
The caller grew upset when the public clinic employee pointed out that those people who allegedly went to get tested a second time at a hospital after having tested positive at a clinic had violated the government’s rule on self-quarantine.
Seocho District confirmed that such a call was made, but stated that there has not been a single case where a patient who tested positive at the public clinic in the district received a negative test result at a private hospital. In addition, people who are given Covid-19 tests are told to go into self-quarantine until the results come out. Those who test positive are transferred to medical facilities by negative pressure ambulances or other means of transportation provided by public clinics. Since those who test positive are immediately input into the computer system, it is impossible for them to receive a second test at a different medical facility through a normal channel.
In addition to Jun Kwang-hun and some members of his church, many of the big names in conservative circles, who attended the August 15 rally, had to be tested. (I am almost hesitant to bring them up because mentioning them could possibly bring even more attention to their ridiculous claims, but these are all people often talked about in right-wing groups, so here goes.) These individuals included former National Assembly members Kim Jin-tae, Cha Myong-jin, and Kim Moon-soo, who were all members of the Liberty Korea Party, which merged into the United Future Party in February 2020. Cha tested positive on August 18 and has since been hospitalized, while Kim Jin-tae and Kim Moon-soo tested negative. Shin Hye-sik, who operates a right-wing Youtube channel, was also hospitalized after testing positive, as well as Joo Ok-soon, head of the Mothers’ Squad and a fervent supporter of former president Park Geun-hye. Nevertheless, they have carried on criticizing the government and perpetuating fake news, claiming that the KCDC was testing many more members of right-wing organizations and rallies compared to other possible clusters. KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong flatly denied such claims on August 24.
“The disease control and prevention measures by the disease control authorities have been implemented to overcome the spread of Covid-19 and have been done with principle, without such trickery or discrimination. Conducting only a small number of tests or adjusting the test results are not something that can be done by [us]. It is impossible to fabricate the number of patients in that way, and we will firmly take the necessary measures if such complaints continue to be made.”
— Jung Eun-kyeong, Director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 24, 2020.
Due to some churches becoming clusters of Covid-19, Korean public opinion of Christians and churches has been spiraling down, although many are now taking measures to switch to online worship services or completely suspending services to prevent the spread of the disease among the members of their congregation. Some of the more conservative churches have either quietly or vocally supported Sarang Jeil Church and claimed that the government is infringing on people’s religious freedom. Others, such as a church in Jeonju, countered such assertions through an emergency notice that said:
“If we believe in God’s grace and his providence, believe that even Christians can contract the coronavirus. If we don’t wear masks, don’t wash our hands, don’t follow social distancing measures, and come to worship services or prayer meetings, it will be even easier to contract the disease. ‘You won’t get infected by coronavirus if you believe in God’ or ‘Only those who don’t have a firm belief [in God] contract the coronavirus’ are downright lies.”
— An emergency notice from a church in Jeonju, August 25, 2020.
Another Christian, Ahn Joong Deok, who is the pastor of a Methodist church in Busan, posted the following message on Facebook:
“’Wear a mask’ means ‘stay quiet’. It means we should stop lying and saying offensive things, reduce unnecessary speech, and listen to others more.
‘Wash your hands often’ means ‘Clean your heart’. When we clean the mirror of our hearts, we will be able to see our own reflection; when we clean the window of our hearts, we will be able to see others.
‘Keep your distance from others’ means ‘Stay close to nature’. It means we should not fight or hurt each other as we live together. It means we should look after the air, water, and the natural ecosystem and live harmoniously with nature. When we stay close to nature, our hearts will grow to love everything.
‘Do not hold face-to-face church services’ means ‘Look toward God whenever and wherever we are’. It means we shouldn’t go to church to be comforted or to be seen by others, but instead we should worship God who is omnipresent. When we face God in silence wherever we are, we will grow closer to His kingdom and His will.
‘Do not assemble in crowds’ means ‘Be with those who have been neglected’. It means we shouldn’t get together to incite anything or show off our strength but to befriend those who miss the warmth of other people. When we cry with those who are crying and share the burden of those who are burdened, the whole world will become warm with love.”
— Ahn Joong Deok, pastor of Saemteo Church in Busan, August 23, 2020.
Ahn’s post has been tweeted by President Moon Jae-in, who is himself a practicing Catholic.
Korea has been holding off much better than the rest of the world during this worldwide pandemic thus far, but now it is on the brink of a nationwide pandemic. We need to be aware that anyone and everyone is susceptible, and continue to practice social distancing and other necessary measures to ensure that this pandemic does not claim any more lives than it already has.