Photo: Collection box at Jeon Gwang-hun's rally says "This offering is for Pastor Jeong Gwang-hun's ministry, and the disposition of the offering is delegated entirely to Pastor Jeon." Credit: the Blue Roof.
Jeon Gwang-hun 전광훈 rose to prominence thanks to his alliance with South Korea’s conservatives. With the controversial pastor being blamed for the second wave of COVID-19 outbreak, the conservatives are now running for cover.
Korea has a unique distinction of a non-Western country that evangelized themselves. Korea’s first Christians did not come to faith after having met a Western missionary; rather, in the late 18th century, they obtained the Bible and related literature from China, studied them, and converted themselves. Korea’s first baptized Christian was Yi Seung-hun 이승훈, who traveled to Beijing to be baptized. The modern day North Korea was the hotbed of Christianity. Pyongyang at one point was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Both parents of Kim Il Sung 김일성, the first leader of North Korea, were devout Christians.
Evangelical Christians have long been the bedrock of South Korea’s conservatism. Syngman Rhee 이승만, South Korea’s first president (who later declared himself the lifetime president,) was a devout Protestant who appealed to his American backers with his faith. When the Korean War broke out, a massive number of Christians escaped from the communist rule, forming the most reliable anti-communist support for Rhee and South Korea’s subsequent military dictators. Even in the democratic era, Protestants had their champion in former president Lee Myung-bak 이명박, a church elder who infamously declared to his church in 2004 that he was “dedicating Seoul to the Lord” as the mayor of Seoul. (Korea’s Catholics, on the other hand, trended more liberal, producing two liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung 김대중 and Moon Jae-in 문재인.)
In the recent years, South Korean conservatives’ time in the electoral wilderness made the support of the evangelicals even more important. Having lost four national elections in a row at every level - presidential, legislative, local - the conservatives’ civic infrastructure is cut to the bones, leaving Protestant churches as one of the few remaining sources of voter organization and fundraising. This is when Jeon Gwang-hun, who entered politics by supporting Lee Myung-bak in 2007, rose to even greater prominence. Relegated to a minority in the National Assembly in 2016 and pushed out of the Blue House in 2017, the conservatives decided to take to the streets, holding massive rallies in downtown Seoul as a show of strength. The fact that then-chairman of the United Future Party Hwang Gyo-an 황교안 was also a devout Christian and elder at his church helped the alliance.
Even back in 2017, the strategy was dubious. Even within the Protestant church, Jeon was a toxic figure: prior to entering politics, he was known as the “Panties Pastor” as he preached in 2005 that “if a woman follows my orders after I tell her ‘drop your panties, because I want to sleep with you,’ she is my true follower; otherwise, she is shit.” Jeon’s antics became so embarrassing that his own denomination expelled him in 2019 and stripped him of the pastor title. (Jeon promptly established a new denomination for himself.) Jeon elderly followers are rabid anti-communists who are convinced that Moon Jae-in was a North Korean spy who was preparing to hand over South Korea to Kim Jong Un 김정은. The more the UFP courted Jeon’s followers, the more it alienated the middle class voters. The result was UFP’s humiliating defeat in the Assembly elections in April, which forced Hwang to resign from his position.
Photo: Jeon Gwang-hun gives a sermon and asks for donations on his Youtube channel. Credit: the Blue Roof.
Undeterred, Jeon Gwang-hun continued with his rallies, acting as the de facto leader of the conservatives of the streets. But being blamed for the second wave of COVID-19 may have fatally damaged his brand. Ironically, the Liberation Day rally ended up infecting a number of prominent conservative leaders and pundits, including former UFP Assembly Member Cha Myeong-jin 차명진, head of Korean Mothers Association 대한민국 엄마부대 Ju Ok-sun 주옥순, conservative Youtube pundit Sin Hye-sik 신혜식, and Jeon himself. Former UFP Assembly Member Min Gyeong-uk 민경욱, who attended the rally but was not infected, is under criminal investigation when he threatened his family with violence when the family did not let him in the house after the rally for fear of coronavirus. (True to form, Jeon claimed that North Korea was behind his infection.)
Since the April elections loss, the UFP has been attempting to slowly back away from Jeon’s rallies. But now, the UFP is turning and running. Perhaps the most embarrassing attempt of rear-covering came from UFP Assembly Member Hong Mun-jong 홍문종, who claimed that he was only saying hello to his constituents who were attending the rally. Immediately after the rally, the UFP issued a tepid statement on August 16, saying “everyone must actively cooperate with the government’s public health measures,” but at the same time arguing “the government and the ruling party must humbly accept the criticism of the many who gathered near Gwanghwamun.” But as the public opinion deteriorated, in an interview held with Chosun Ilbo on August 22, Minority Leader Ju Ho-yeong 주호영 strongly criticized Jeon, calling him “unforgivable” and “needs to pay.” Jeon’s Sarang Jeil Church reacted angrily, calling the UFP “the second brigade for the Moon administration and the Democratic Party.”
It is difficult to see how the conservatives could expand its base while being linked to Jeon Gwang-hun’s fanatics. With their paranoid anti-communism that is detached from reality, the evangelicals were already turning off the general public. With their rallies causing the second wave, the public esteem for the Protestants could not be lower. But cutting off the likes of Jeon Gwang-hun means even leaner times for the UFP, which is yet to find an ideological foundation on which to build a new vision for South Korea’s conservatives.