South Korea is experiencing its second-largest COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic started. Health authorities say a church and its outspoken pastor are at the epicenter.
Banners hang across some of the alleys that lead to Sarang Jaeil, a Presbyterian church in a rundown neighborhood of northern Seoul. They state that due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the area, entry to the house of worship is banned as well as gatherings in its vicinity.
According to the latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), about 3,400 of the church’s members have been tested and about 20% have contracted the coronavirus as of Thursday. They are now receiving medical care.
But authorities warn the disease has already spread far beyond this cluster. And because many of its congregants have gone into hiding before being tested, there’s heightened risk of a nationwide infection.
Thanks to its rapid testing and contact-tracing system, South Korea was one of the first nations to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread. But three months after relaxing social distancing orders, the new outbreak is forcing the country to put back in place many of those restrictions.
Some 1,900 new cases have been recorded over the past week, bringing the country’s total number of COVID-19 infections to 16,670, the KCDC reported on Friday.
Kim Gang-lip, a vice minister of health, says authorities are trying to track down several hundred other Sarang Jaeil worshipers with the help of law enforcement and telecommunications firms.
“We have cooperated with the police and have gathered their mobile numbers and we are contacting them on a regular basis,” Kim said during a televised briefing on Thursday.
He added this “crisis” has prompted the government to raise the pandemic alert level in the Seoul metropolitan area and implement “tough measures” to contain the disease.
Some of those steps include reducing school attendance to one-third capacity, closing sports stadiums to fans and prohibiting in-person services at all churches.
The elevated social distancing policy will be in effect until the end of the month. The KCDC says it’s concerned that members of the Sarang Jaeil Church might have infected many more people when they joined a large anti-government demonstration on Aug. 15 to mark the 75th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II.
That rally in downtown Seoul was led by the church’s pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, an influential figure in South Korea’s conservative, Protestant community and one of the most ardent critics of liberal President Moon Jae-in.
“[Sarang Jaeil members] believe President Moon's regime has explicitly been pro-Chinese and pro-North Korean Communism."
Song Jae-ryong, director of the Institute for Religion and Civic Culture at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, says Jun and his followers have routinely protested against the Moon administration since 2017.
“They believe President Moon's regime has explicitly been pro-Chinese and pro-North Korean Communism,” he says.
Last Saturday’s demonstration drew an estimated 20,000 protestors, including an adjacent labor union gathering, according to local media reports. The KCDC has requested all participants to get tested for the coronavirus regardless of symptoms.
In a video uploaded to the Sarang Jaeil Church’s YouTube channel on the day of the demonstration, Pastor Jun, who was not wearing a face covering, suggests that the government intentionally infected his congregation with what he calls the “Wuhan virus.”
Jun frequently states conspiracy theories at his protests and on social media, including that President Moon works on behalf of North Korea’s Pyongyang regime.
On Monday, Seoul authorities announced that Jun tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized.
There’s been widespread public condemnation of the pastor and his church.
More than 300,000 people have signed an online petition that calls for Jun’s arrest — he is technically out on bail following an indictment earlier this year over election law violations. And on Friday, police conducted a raid of Sarang Jaeil Church.
A similar situation occurred in February following South Korea’s first and still largest COVID-19 outbreak at a church that is widely seen as a cult. Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji sect, was arrested earlier this month on obstruction charges.
Kyung Hee University’s Song Jae-ryong, cautions that the latest backlash overlooks the fact that new coronavirus cases were steadily rising before the Aug. 15 demonstration.
“It seems ... easy, blaming the anti-Moon Jae-in government rally, together with Jun Kwan-hoon, for responsibility of the second major infection,” Song says, and likens the official response to a “witch hunt.”
He points out that thousands of people also attended a vigil for Seoul’s progressive mayor, Park Won-soon, who died from an apparent suicide in July.
Koo Se-woong, a former South Korean journalist and religion scholar, says the way the government has singled out Pastor Jun and his very conservative church seems deliberate.
“I don’t think many people would deny the fact that the church has acted incredibly irresponsibly. ... But, at the same time, one could also argue that the kind of approach we are seeing from the government has a political dimension.”
“I don’t think many people would deny the fact that the church has acted incredibly irresponsibly,” he says. “But, at the same time, one could also argue that the kind of approach we are seeing from the government has a political dimension.”
Koo says one thing officials could do is more gently encourage the missing church members — who are already mistrustful of the government — to come forward for testing.
“They need to focus on the fact that this is a public health crisis and they need to avoid scapegoating,” he says.