The concept of the separation of Church and State is being sorely tested in South Korea after a priest’s outspoken comments against the administration of President Park Geun-hye caused a media sensation in the country.
The row was first sparked on November 22 when Fr Park Chang-shin, a
priest of the Diocese of Jeonju, used his 40-minute homily to attack the
record of the current government and openly called for the resignation
of the president.
Decrying an alleged lack of real democracy in the
country following the December electoral win by Ms Park Geun-hye of the
Saenuri Party, Fr Park gave voice to a belief in some quarters that the
country’s secret service was employed at Ms Park’s behest in rigging the
presidential election’s outcome.
(South Korea’s intelligence chief, Won
Sei-hoon, is currently awaiting trial on charges that he ordered a
misinformation campaign against President Park’s campaign rivals in
2012. The president has promised transparency and full investigation
while denying any part in dirty tricks.)
Timing his homily to coincide with a Mass marking the third
anniversary of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, still an
emotive issue for South Koreans, Fr Park further accused the government
of seeking to “create an enemy” out of that incident.
Pointing out that
North Korea had fired on Yeonpyeong only after a US-South Korean
military drill fired into the North’s territorial waters, he suggested
the North’s reaction was entirely natural.
The sense of outrage within government circles was immediately
demonstrated in a call by Saenuri for supporters to protest against
enemies of the state.
Pointedly, the party urged protestors to make
their voices heard at Myeongdong Cathedral in the capital, Seoul. About
700 responded to the call and attempted, on November 26, to force their
way into the building as police struggled to hold their line.
cathedral later received an anonymous bomb threat.
At first glance the reactions appear more symbolic than practical;
Jeonju diocese is far from the capital and Fr Park does not preach or
minister in the city.
However, the targeting of the country’s main
Catholic cathedral may be a pointed message in itself from an
administration which has faced religious ire previously in 2013, again
arising from that 2012 election result.
In August, a gathering of over
4,000 Catholic priests at Sogang University called on the president to
come clean on the election and then, in September, some 5,000 protestors
joined priests and nuns in a demonstration in Seoul on the same
Significantly, that event was the first time in many decades
that the Catholic Church in South Korea backed such a protest.
If these recent events throw a different light on Saenuri’s own
actions, there is much to be made too of political pronouncements
against Fr Park in the days following his homily.
Having called an emergency meeting to discuss the coverage given to
the outspoken cleric, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won condemned the
seeming justification of the North’s actions against Yeonpyeong.
“Park Chang-shin may be a priest,” he stated. “But he is first and
foremost a citizen of this country. Not only is he parroting the
arguments of North Korea by making statements that violate the basic
duties of a citizen, he is also overlooking North Korea’s provocative
action. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. He must be held responsible
for his actions.”
Similarly, from President Park: “Not only has North Korea failed to
show contrition for its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, it continues to
threaten to turn the Blue House [the presidential residence] into a sea
of fire. National security cannot be preserved through cutting-edge
weaponry alone. Even more important is the patriotism and the unity of
Notably, the posturing on national security and loyalty was not
matched by any talk of that other substantive issue of the homily, the
alleged rigging of the December 2012 election, and only Fr Park’s
‘seditious’ words on Yeonpyeong form the basis of the criminal
investigation now launched against him.
Amid the tense atmosphere now existing, an attempt to placate both sides fell to Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul.
Stating firmly that “it is not the role of the pastors of the Church
to intervene directly in the political structuring and organisation of
social life”, he simultaneously asserted that “we Christians cannot play
the role of Pilate, washing our hands. We must be involved in
For his part, Fr Park seeks no middle ground. “I served in the
military,” he pointed out. “I’m a citizen of this country. I want the
Republic of Korea to be a good country, a country where we work together