Photo: Jeon Gwang-hun gives a sermon and asks for donations on his Youtube channel. Credit: the Blue Roof
The People Power Party 국민의 힘 chairman Kim Jong-in 김종인 may be the leader of South Korea’s conservatives in the National Assembly, but on the streets, Pastor Jeon Gwang-hun 전광훈 is the de facto conservative leader. His weekly rallies at the Gwanghwamun Square attract a huge anti-government crowd, mostly made up of elderly evangelical Christians who sincerely believe that the liberal Moon Jae-in administration will soon surrender the country to North Korea and China.
Even for the staunchly conservative Protestant churches of South Korea, Jeon’s presence has been an embarrassment. Jeon made news in 2005 when he claimed on the pulpit that “only the women followers who drop their panties for me are the true followers of mine.” Yet following the impeachment of conservative Park Geun-hye 박근혜, Jeon emerged as a de facto leader of South Korea’s McCarthyist right-wing.
Even after his Presbyterian denomination relieved him of his pastorship, Jeon established his own denomination and continued his church service and rallies. In February 2020, Jeon was arrested and later released on bail for violating the Elections Act 공직선거법, which prohibits campaigning for elections outside of the designated period.
As Jeon continued his rallies through the coronavirus pandemic, it was a near-miracle that a mass infection did not occur among his followers earlier. But Jeon’s good luck ran out on the Liberation Day rally, as 25% of the 800 Sarang Jeil Church members who were tested for COVID-19 tested positive. Jeon violated his own quarantine to attend his rally, and directed his followers to refuse testing and lie to contact tracers.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control 질병관리본부 ordered all 4,000 members of Sarang Jeil Church to be tested regardless of whether or not they attended the Liberation Day rally. The City of Seoul and the COVID-19 Response Center 코로나19 중앙사고수습본부 filed criminal complaints against Jeon, alleging violations of the Infectious Disease Prevention Act 감염병예방법. Jeon himself tested positive for coronavirus, although he made a full recovery.