Police prevent protesters from marching to the Presidential palace during a rally against the government on August 15, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: AFP/Chris Jung/NurPhoto

It’s back. South Korea, which had won widespread global praise for its containment of Covid-19, is seeing a resurgence.

On Monday, the country reported 197 cases after a five-month high on Sunday of 279 new infections.

Even allowing for the fact that it was a national holiday Monday, Seoul was unusually silent. South Koreans have an insatiable national caffeine addiction, but a Starbucks in a downtown office building was the quietest Asia Times had ever seen it – even during the height of the country’s pandemic outbreak in March.  

A deserted Starbucks coffee shop in central Seoul on Monday morning. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Once again, a church – and one with strong political beliefs – was at the center of the outbreak.

On Saturday tens of thousands of conservatives, many led by Reverend Jeon Gwang-hoon who leads the Sarang Jeil Church, converged upon central Seoul to protest against the left-wing Moon Jae-in administration.

Conservatives live-streamed their protests, sending messages to foreign reporters reading: “Korean revolution against the left-wing dictatorship of Moon Jae-in has started.”

Right-wingers claim, with various degrees of credibility, that the Moon administration is suppressing anti-North Korean activists, manipulated April parliamentary elections that granted the government an absolute majority in the National Assembly and is a front for the North Korean regime.

Jeon, a fanatical opponent of Moon – who he has compared to Adolf Hitler – is at large on bail, having been indicted in March of violations of electoral laws. He and members of his flock were also reportedly under self-quarantine restrictions, given that a cluster had been identified at the church.

About 249 church-goers had tested positive, with 190 newly confirmed infected, as of Sunday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of midday Monday, that number had climbed to 319 according to Yonhap news agency.

Authorities had identified 4,000 churchgoers by late Sunday night, and is quarantining and screening them, Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a Monday press briefing.

Over 200,000 people have signing an online petition on the presidential office’s website, asking for the pastor to be detained.

Seoul City and the central government filed a complaint against Jeon on Sunday with prosecutors. Prosecutors also said Sunday that they were planning to revoke his bail.

Moon unleashed a broadside against the turbulent priest on Sunday via a Facebook message. Referring to the mass rally Jeon had urged, Moon wrote: “It is a very senseless act that hampers efforts of the whole people to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. It is a clear challenge to the national disease control and prevention system, and an unforgivable act that threatens the lives of the people.”

He warned that the government would take “very stern and strong measures.” 

A different Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church, was at the center of the country’s first major outbreak in February-March. The head of the church is facing prosecution for allegedly hampering authorities’ efforts to contain the virus at his church.

Seoul is now on the second tier of a three-tier virus alert. Even so, South Korea’s overall Covid-19 crisis is on a far smaller scale than that confronting most developed countries. As of Monday, Korea, population 51 million, has recorded 15, 515 infections, but just 305 deaths.