Obituary: Jo Yong-gi, 85, Leader of South Korea's Evangelicals

Serial adulterer and white collar criminal was a major figure in South Korea's conservative politics through his church and newspaper.

Obituary: Jo Yong-gi, 85, Leader of South Korea's Evangelicals

Photo: Jo Yong-gi.  Credit: Christian Council of Korea.

Jo Yong-gi 조용기, a giant among South Korea’s Evangelicals, passed away on September 14 following a yearlong hospitalization due to brain hemorrhage. His legacy includes the world’s largest Protestant church, Yoido Full Gospel Church 여의도 순복음 교회, a major daily newspaper Kukmin Ilbo 국민일보, and a lifetime of controversial conservative politics.

Jo was born in Ulsan 울산 in 1936. He first encountered Christianity in the 1950s through the Pentacoastal missionaries from the United States. He began his pastoral service in Seoul’s Eunpyeong-gu District 서울 은평구 in 1958. In what was then a poverty-stricken area filled with Korean War refugees and the urban poor living in makeshift huts, he made his name through charismatic sermons. In 1973, Jo’s church moved to the Yeouido 여의도, a small and newly developed island on the southern bank of the Han River 한강 that bisected Seoul. There, the church grew into the world’s largest Protestant and Pentacoastal church, with nearly half a million members and approximately 160k attending each Sunday service.

Jo Yong-gi’s ministerial style was characterized by a persistent prosperity gospel and a proclivity for speaking in tongues. He frequently made a claim, later retracted, that salvation was impossible without speaking in tongues. Following major earthquakes in Japan in 2011 and Nepal in 2015, Jo claimed the natural disasters occurred because those countries did not believe in the Christian god. Jo, as well as his three sons who worked in the family business, were serial adulterers; they were also prolific white collar criminals, each investigated and convicted for embezzlement of church funds, tax evasion and stock manipulation.

Jo was a major force in South Korean politics, particularly through the church foundation’s ownership of Kukmin Ilbo, Korea’s tenth largest newspaper founded in 1987. The church foundation actively controls Kukmin’s editorial direction; applicants for a journalist position with the newspaper are tested on their knowledge of the Bible. As recently as 2018, the newspaper ran a front page story denying the theory of evolution.

The paper is also a consistent source of homophobia. The headline for its 2016 obituary of South Korea’s first known transgender woman - again on the front page - read: “Homosexuality is not love; in the end, you grow old alone in tragedy.” Kukmin Ilbo’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Seoul’s LGBT-friendly Itaewon 이태원 clubbing district in May 2020 implied that homosexuality was to blame for the spread of coronavirus - a coverage so bigoted that the paper’s journalist union staged an open revolt.

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