South Korean reverend Jeon Gwang-hoon in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Could it be divine justice?

A rabid right-wing Christian pastor who spoke before thousands of protesters in Seoul on Saturday, ushering in a massive new cluster of Covid-19 infections, has reportedly tested positive for the virus.  

Jeon Gwang-hoon, 64, is known for his impassioned oratory denouncing President Moon Jae-in. Jeon, his wife and his secretary, who all tested positive, were moved to Seoul Medical Center on Monday evening, according to TV news reports 

Protestant Jeon heads the Sarang Jeil (“Love Foremost”) Church in the prosperous Seongbuk district of Seoul, where several scenes from the hit movie “Parasite” were filmed.

Jeon, the church, and its satellite network in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, are part of a network of conservative organizations that have, since the election of Moon in 2017, been rallying hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

Waving Korean flags (“Taegukki”), these “Taegukki Warriors” denounce Moon as a communist and North Korean stooge or traitor. Jeon supporters, most of whom are elderly and many are Christian, also call for the release from prison of disgraced right-wing former president Park Geun-hye and demand strengthening of the Korea-US alliance.

Park is serving a 33-year jail term for corruption and abuse of power. Impeachment of the right-wing Park in 2017 paved the way for the election of the left-wing Moon.

Jeon has been a prominent rallier and orator at these demonstrations. The protests, which were suspended after the March Covid outbreak and only returned on Saturday, usually take place in a street next to Seoul’s top tourist attraction, Gyeongbok Palace, which leads to the presidential Blue House.

A taste of Jeon’s opinions may be gleaned from what he told foreign correspondents at a press conference last year.

“Moon Jae-in is worse than Adolf Hitler!” he thundered – to the visible astonishment of reporters present. “What Hitler did was for the benefit of his own country. What Moon is doing is for the benefit of North Korea.”

A demonstrator dressed as Jesus marches to the Presidential Palace during a rally against the government on August 15, 2020. Photo: Chris Jung/NurPhoto

Partly as a result of Jeon’s activities, South Korea’s Covid-19 cases have surged.

After weeks in double digits, there were 103 new infections on Friday and 166 on Saturday. On Sunday, after the big rally in Seoul, the numbers hit a five-month high of 279. On Monday, they were down to 179, but on Tuesday, they bounced back to 246, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the new cases, 457 have been linked to Jeon’s church, and about 3.400 worshippers are in quarantine.

Now, legal pressure and public anger are mounting against Jeon.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Central Accident Investigation Headquarters on Monday filed a complaint against Jeon for violating the Act on the Prevention of Infectious Diseases. The government also said that Jeon is suspected of omission and concealment of his members as authorities seek to track down possible infections among his flock.

Even before his appearance at the rally on Saturday, Jeon was on thin legal ice.

In February, he led protests in defiance of government guidelines on social distancing. And he was arrested and indicted in March on charges of violating electoral laws but was freed on bail a month later.

Christianity came to Korea in the late 19th century as the former “Hermit Kingdom” opened up to the wider world. But the combination of muscular Christianity and right-wing politics that Jeon represents stems from a more recent US influence on Korean society, one Korea watcher said.

“Since the Korean War, America has had a large influence on Korea, and part of the ‘American wave’ was Christianity. It was seen as the religion of getting ahead and of economic prosperity, and then you had the development of these mega churches here,” said Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country.

Conservative groups demand President Moon Jae-in step down during a protest marking the 75th anniversary of National Liberation Day on August 15, 2020 in Seoul. Photo: Chris Jung/NurPhoto

Jeon clearly has a following but it is far from mainstream, Tudor suggested.

“I think the average person thinks Jeon and these kinds of guys are a complete bunch of idiots. Even Christian friends of mine think he is an embarrassment,” the author said. “If I were a politician, I would be bashing the hell out of these guys.”

Even fellow right-wingers suggest Jeon represents the unacceptable face of conservative street politics.

“Personally, I don’t have a religion and I think some people with hardcore religious beliefs have a problem,” said Lew Han-jin, a right-wing columnist. “By default, Jeon is approaching the Moon Jae-in government from the religious point of view when it should be a political one, from conservatism.”

There seemed to be little sympathy for Jeon among those to whom Asia Times spoke in Seoul on Tuesday.

 “I think he is a crazy man,” said a 20-something intern working at a downtown government office. “I have heard that he told his followers not to worry about Covid-19 as God will protect them, so we should just leave him without treatment.”

The source asked not to be named, for fear of being tracked down by angry followers of Jeon.

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