South Korean Government Remains Silent regarding COVID-19 Human Rights Violations despite International Outcry

Human Rights Violations under the watchful eyes of the South Korea government continues despite statements from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) earlier this year saying, “USCIRF is concerned by reports that Shincheonji church members are been blamed for the spread of coronavirus. We urge the South Korean authorities to condemn scapegoating and to respect the religious freedom as it responds to the outbreak.”

Since February many other human rights organisations have spoken out and recently international religious leaders have added their voice and are urging the South Korean government to act and protect all citizens from being victimized. Yet, the South Korean government remains silent. Many letters have been written and statements have been made on public platforms, however these letters remain unanswered, but the witch-hunt into Shincheonji Church of Jesus and the chairman of peace organisation HWPL, Mr Man Hee Lee, ensues.

Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul

Much coverage has been given to “Patient 31” and blame directed at Shincheonji for causing the widespread infections of thousands of Korean citizens with COVID-19, but very few reports can be found about patients 1 to 30 and how the virus actually ended up in South Korea. In March this year Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae came under fire from opposition party representative Chang Je-won for her boasting about receiving praise and gratitude from the Chinese government for not closing national borders to people entering Korea from China.

On March 4th, 2020, Minister Choo stated,

“We received the special gratitude that it is political to block inbound travellers from China and they thanked us for not using it politically. If it were the U.S., Chinese people would have been completely blocked from entering and this would have been dragged politically. We do it effectively, not politically.”

Opposition leaders are accusing Minister Choo for solely acting in the interest of political gain and “image” by having left the borders open, instead of protecting thousands of Korean citizens from the entering of COVID-19 into the country. Now that the government is in the hot seat after the virus spread so rapidly, mainly through members of Shincheonji, they are trying to live up to their claim of doing “it effectively, not politically”, by using a minority religious group as their scapegoat for not acting in the country’s best interest from the get go.

Members of the church have come under scrutiny by the global community through false reports without evidence circulated online and through the press, generated by disgruntled opposing groups and former members, who are using the opportunity to disband Shincheonji. Recently leaders of the church have been taken into custody as law suits are being filed against the organisation for damages caused through the spread of the virus.

The question on many religious leaders’ lips and that of opposing political parties within Korea is, why the government not stopped the virus from entering the country by closing its borders to China in the first place. Human rights organisations are calling the scapegoating of Shincheonji a violation of basic human rights in abusing religious freedom. Many feel that the real blame lies with the ruling government by not protecting its citizens from the virus by closing its borders to China when the virus broke out.

After allowing the virus to enter the country, the South Korean government is conveniently blaming Shincheonji Church and making it the scapegoat. The Justice Minister Choo gave direct orders to prosecutors for the seizure of Shincheonji property and the arrest of its leaders. Despite this and members being bullied by the public and media, persecuted and some even losing their jobs for being exposed as Shincheonji members, more than 4,000 members decided and committed to donate blood plasma for COVID-19 therapy and research purposes.

Panellists of the Interfaith Webinar against Religious Oppression that took place on Mandela Day

In South Africa in the spirit of Madiba and his vision to spread social justice and freedom for all, religious leaders from Southern Africa came together to engage in an ‘Interfaith Webinar against Religious Oppression’ on Mandela Day. This event was attended by more than 600 online viewers. Panellists from South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe condemned acts of persecution and discrimination against minority religious groups such as South Korea’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

Chairperson of the Council for African Traditional Religion, Dr. Nokuzola Mndende shared that, “As all the constitutions from our respective countries speak of the right to life, which is a right for everybody, our governments would put all political class and religious boundaries aside. We are all facing one enemy, which is Covid-19. Freedom of religion and freedom of belief should not be on paper only; it should be implemented if we are talking about democracy.”

With Yashika Singh, the SABC’s Head of Religion sharing the synopsis of the current state of religion in the continent, the panellists’ spotlighted the ongoing persecution of fellow religious leader, and founder of South Korean church, Shincheonji, Man Hee Lee. The leaders shed light on the importance of protecting universal rights and freedoms and jointly spoke against the unlawful and dehumanizing actions of the religious community and Government of Korea.

The Interfaith Webinar concluded with a joint statement from the religious leaders. In the statement, they committed to support Chairman Lee’s noble peace work, to stand in solidarity against the oppression of minority religious groups, and to condemn all acts of human rights violations, persecution, and discrimination against Chairman Lee’s church, Shincheonji and other minority groups worldwide. The joint statement was addressed to their respective governments and the government of South Korea, other religious leaders, and the global community.

Chairperson of the ANC Chaplaincy in South Africa, Rev. Dorothea Gopie interviewed by EA

Yet, the South Korean government remains silent while the innocent suffer human rights violations and unjust persecution.

In an official interview with Established Africa, Chairperson of the ANC Chaplaincy in South Africa, Rev. Dorothea Gopie expressed her opinion on why the South Korean government is remaining silent on this issue, even after international leaders and citizens have reached out to the South Korean government for a response.  She feels the reason the government is silent is because they know that they are wrong.

“They are the people that are to be blamed and they are wrong. And during this time they are supposed to be working together to get to a solution, not blaming a group, a minority group of people, and an elderly man. During this time even, the month of July, we in South Africa are celebrating the month of Madiba. And Mr Lee is equal to Madiba because he is an elderly man that has put his time aside to help other people. Instead of being given the help that he needs, he gets the blame. I think that is so wrong of them. I think they know they are in the wrong and they don’t have an answer to give to the people.”

Rev. Dorothea Gopie

On the note of the Korean government’s failure to close its borders Rev. Gopie expressed that the blame rests on the shoulders of the government and that they should have put the safety of their citizens as priority.

“When the outbreak happened, they were supposed to close (the borders). It is what was done here in South Africa. When it started, the first people that were affected, our government called for level five and shut down, and no flights out and no visiting other countries and so on, because our government cared about the citizens and not about trading and money-making. That is what was expected from the South Korean government, to care about the citizens and not caring about making money and advertising and trading. So, they are to blame.”

Furthermore, the South Korean Government’s handling of the spread of COVID-19 has now become a marketing tool, coined ‘K-Prevention,’ likened to their popular music culture, ‘K-Pop.’ In response to the way the South Korean government has promoted only the things which they have done well but ignored their mistakes and the serious human rights abuses that have taken place, Rev. Gopie shared that she feels they have been arrogant in the way that they are dealing with COVID 19.

“I would say that it is arrogant. The role of the government is to protect its citizens. First and foremost, the role of government is to protect its citizens and its arrogant of sweeping this issue under the table, under the rug. That means to say they do not care about their citizens.”

In closing, Rev. Gopie extended a special message to Chairman Lee encouraging him not to give up and likening him to the Father of the Nation of South Africa, Nelson Mandela:

“As a religious leader and the chairperson of the religious body, I want to say that Mr Lee has our prayers as religious leaders and we want to thank him, as an elderly man that has taken the time and care for other people while he could have just thought about himself and been selfish. But he thought about the citizens and not about himself. And he also went so far as reaching out to other countries in order to help South Korea. So, at this moment, he is being given the blame but we are praying for him because we know that he meant good and we are taking him as the image of Madiba because Madiba has spent his life in jail for other people, not for himself, not thinking about his wife and his kids but thinking about the nation and that is what Mr Lee is doing at the moment. And he must not give up and think that there is nobody that is praying for him. We are praying for him and God will give him strength to go forward with the work he is doing.”