By Youngsu Won
March 2, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The abrupt mass outbreak of COVID-19 has shocked most of South Korea - with the exception of a small millennial sect.
By March 1, the number of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 had risen to more than 3700, including 20 confirmed deaths, representing a huge rise compared with the less than 100 cases just two weeks before.
More than 60% of those infected are members of a religious sect: the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Shincheonji means New Heaven and Earth in Korean and implies a millennial Christian utopia. Its leader, Lee Man-hee, controls this monolithic organism from top to bottom.
Millennial sect provokes outbreak
The Guardian recently published an article under the headline: “‘We're treated like criminals': South Korean sect feels coronavirus backlash South Korea”. In the article, the Shincheonji sect is made out to be the innocent victim of a witch hunt.
However, the real story is very different. The Shincheonji sect is not a victim; rather it has played a key role in spreading COVID-19. The sect’s ignorance and stubbornness has greatly contributed to the explosive spread of the virus, with Shincheonji members continuing to hold large religious gatherings.
Under enormous pressure from public opinion, and at the request of the government, the Shincheonji sect's leadership has finally provided a list of its membership and another list of about 90,000 members-in-training, though the legitimacy of the lists has been questioned. As a secret religious sect, it is run as an extremely centralised clandestine organisation under its supreme leader who is regarded by followers as a resurrected Jesus. One of its priorities is to keep maximum secrecy.
The Shincheonji sect has never publicly apologised nor given any statement acknowledging its responsibility. Instead, its official statement said "A storm is depriving us of our faith", alluding to the outbreak as some sort of conspiracy or punishment by God.
The sect has, for now, taken a highly defensive stance, making every effort to keep secret as much information about its organisation and members as possible. Due to its reluctance to cooperate with authorities, much about the sect still remains a mystery.
For instance, in January, the old brother of sect founder Lee Man-hee died in a hospital in Cheongdo county, not far from Daegu but which has become another epic centre of the outbreak. Many Shincheonji leaders visited him in hospital and attended his funeral. It is thought that his death might have been caused by the virus, but the Shincheonji sect has refused to tell the truth.
Furthermore, the sect had concealed the fact that one of its key centres of missionary activities is in Wuhan, mainland China, where it maintains an active branch. Its English website had previously boasted about this work, but it has since removed this information following the outbreak of COVID-19.
Shincheonji members are notorious for not mentioning the name of their church until members-in-training have been fully converted. In addition to other strange behaviours, rank-and-file members are forced to abide by strict discipline and financial sacrifice. On this basis, Shincheonji has built itself into a sectarian empire, a huge network of open and clandestine churches and meeting places, both nationally and internationally.
Alongside its religious and missionary activities, Shincheonji owns a number of expensive assets, such as buildings and real estate, though only Lee Man-hee and his close assistants know the exact extent of their fortunes. To defend illegally obtained assets and protect the sect from possible attacks, Shincheonji has developed a broad range of defense and lobbying efforts, including giving bribes to a range of politicians and public officials. According to the Shincheonji sect, all possible methods, legal or illegal, are permitted because they are the chosen people: anything can be justified if it is done to please God or supreme leader Lee Man-hee.
Other religious sects
while the government is discouraging people from holding any gatherings or rallies, last weekend extreme right-wing Christians held a several thousands-strong rally in Gwanghwamun Square, in downtown Seoul, in front of the national government buildings and the US Embassy. There, fanatical Protestant pastor Jeon Gwanghoon gave his usual anti-government speech, ridiculing fear of coronavirus, saying that the virus is not a problem and that God would cure those who attended the rally.
Despite the government’s request to call off church and temple services and instead deliver them online, many Protestant churches have continued to provide services for churchgoers. Several ministers and many believers have caught COVID-19, but many Protestant leaders have insisted on continuing with business as usual. Catholic churches and Buddhist temples, however, have cancelled all services.
Ultra-conservative Christians have been the main bulwark against Democratic Party of Korea President Moon Jae-in’s government. They remain angry about the impeachment of conservative Saenuri Party President Park Geun-hye and have demanded her release from prison, despite her ongoing trial.
These Christians, along with other reactionary extremists, have collected more than 1 million signatures as part of an online petition campaign to demand Moon’s impeachment. They maintain complete freedom to spread all kinds of hateful and fake news.
These sects have a fairly wide presence across society. There are regular news reports linking them to cases of fraud, extortion, threats and even violence. For example, the shipping company at the centre of the tragic Sewol ferry accident was owned by the Evangelical Baptist Church religious sect, more commonly known as the Salvation Sect. During the investigation, sect founder Yoo Byung-eun died mysteriously while being hunted by police. Park was allegedly deeply involved with a pastor, Choi Tae-min, who was the father of Park's accomplice Choi Soon-shil.
These sects have totally destroyed the lives of its entrapped victims, with many of them going bankrupt after devoting all they have to the group. While religious sects maintain a fortune in buildings and land, followers live like slaves. Those luckily to escape face the harsh reality of having to begin again without a cent to their name.
The unexpected explosion of COVID-19 has deepened the crisis in the country and fuelled hate speech and racist and chauvinist phobias. Some extreme nationalists have insisted on extending the government’s current ban on Chinese people from Wuhan and neighbouring areas travelling to South Korea to any ethnic Chinese person.
Another present danger is that, in the course of fighting COVID-19, there has been a rise in 1984-style totalitarianism. While many South Koreans recognise the inevitability of unusual emergency measures that might encroach on personal freedom, the government has activated mechanisms to maintain complete surveillance over potential patients, including obtaining personal information, without any restrictions, from mobile phone companies and internet or SNS service providers.
The situation remains uncertain and volatile. It is difficult to foresee any prompt end to the crisis in the coming days or weeks. Amid this natural disaster, reactionary extremists, as well as religious fanatics, are playing a dominant role in forming public opinion far beyond the level of their actual influence.
The unprecedented COVID-19 medical crisis has exposed the extremely ugly face of reactionary religious sectarianism and the dismal dystopia of South Korea's vulgar 21st century capitalism.
UPDATE: Today, March 2, as the number of patients infected with COVID-19 rose to 4335, Shincheonji sect leader Lee Man-hee formally made a long overdue public apology, though the sincerity of it has been questioned given he evaded telling the whole truth.