The tearful founder of Shincheonji Church, Lee Man-kee, 89, speaks during a press conference Monday. Many Koreans are infuriated by the church, which they blame for the majority of the country’s coronavirus cases. Seoul City announced that it is suing him for murder. Photo: AFP

Despite his belated apology Monday, Seoul City Hall announced it was suing the head of a highly controversial church that is at the heart of South Korea’s Covid-19 epidemic for murder and other charges.

In Japan, the upcoming sumo season will go ahead – but will play to empty houses.

Japan registered just one new coronavirus case on Monday, according to Kyodo News, for a total of 256 cases. In South Korea, however, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 infections reached 4, 335 – a day-on-day rise of 549 cases. So far, 26 patients have died from the disease.

But while Korea’s total had risen, the number of new day-on-day cases was smaller than those of the previous three days – when cases had risen by 571, 814 and 586, respectively.

South Korean confirmed covid-19 cases

January 20: first case

Wednesday, February 19: Total 51 cases

Thursday, February 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday, February 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday, February 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday, February 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday, February 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday, February 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday, February 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday, February 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Friday, February 28: New cases: 571.Total: 2,337

Saturday, February 29:  New cases: 813. Total: 3,150

Sunday, March 1: New cases: 586. Total: 3,736

Monday, March 2: New cases: 549. Total: 4,335

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The KCDC releases figures twice daily, morning and evening. The above chart is collated from the figures released at the end of each day

In its latest move against infection, Korea said it would extend its ongoing school break to March 27. Universities have also postponed classes.

J’accuse!

Although Daegu, in Korea’s southeast, is the city most plagued by the coronavirus, which has been spread predominantly by Shincheonji Church members, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced that his city was suing the founder and leaders of the sect for “murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases.”

The secretive church, which some consider a cult, is alleged to have held closely packed services and to have forbidden its worshippers from wearing masks.  Almost 60% of the country’s cases are linked to the church, which is headquartered in Daegu.

Many members of the public have expressed fury at Shincheonji, which has responded by claiming that it is a victim of the virus and has denied some of the allegations it faces.

“The prosecution should investigate and punish key leaders of Shincheonji, accountable for the recent spread of the deadly virus, in a swift and stern manner,” Park said according to a press release sent to foreign reporters in Seoul.

The left-leaning Park is an ally of President Moon Jae-in – who is constitutionally limited to a single, five-year term that ends in 2022 – and has customarily been cagey about his own presidential ambitions.

Some conservatives have slammed the Moon administration for not closing Korea’s borders to China at the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, and even called for his impeachment. Shincheonji has promoted a broadly conservative political agenda alongside its religious beliefs, while the city of Daegu is renowned as Korea’s staunchest right-wing stronghold.

The founder of Shincheonji is Lee Man-kee, 89. Lee had not appeared in public since the controversy arose, but on Monday he delivered a bow and an apology to the public and government in a press conference in the scenic county of Gapyeong – which is also home to the controversial Reunification Church, or Moonies.

Koreans have minimal tolerance for those they believe are responsible for disasters. Many members of the public held then-President Park Geun-hye personally responsible for the high loss of life that occurred when the ferry Sewol foundered in 2014. 

Park was subsequently impeached for corruption and abuse of power, but the Constitutional Court did not find her accountable for the loss of life. She is currently serving a compound prison term of 33 years.    

One observer of the Korean scene, who requested anonymity due to his links to Seoul City Hall, accused the mayor of engaging in scapegoat politicking.

“If you take Daegu out of the equation,  the numbers of this virus in Korea are no more alarming than in any other country in the world, so what is the mayor of Seoul doing stepping in?” he asked. “People who are fans of the mayor will think he is right, everyone else will thing he is stepping beyond the boundaries of his job and making a presidential play: He is not the major of the city where the group caused the infections.”

Silent sumo

Sumo’s governing body announced Sunday that the sport’s spring tournament would be held behind closed doors. It is the latest major sport to suffer from the virus. Spectators will be barred from the tourney, set for March 8-22 in Osaka, according to AFP.

A range of sporting events have been called off both within Japan and around the region, just five months before the Olympics are due to open in Tokyo.

A top International Olympic Committee official has said that the latest decision that can be made on whether the Games will go ahead is late May.