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     Feb 1, 2008
A 'God-given' president-elect
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - "I declare that the City of Seoul is a holy place governed by God; the citizens in Seoul are God's people; the churches and Christians in Seoul are spiritual guards that protect the city ... I now dedicate Seoul to the Lord," the mayor of Seoul solemnly told the audience who packed an auditorium on May 31, 2004. The mayor at the time is now South Korea's president-elect, Lee Myung-bak. Lee will succeed outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun on February 25.

When Lee ran for president, a blogger remembered the statement and said, "This is a very important piece of evidence that shows why Lee shouldn't be the president," questioning Lee's religious penchant. Many other bloggers also chimed in, quipping that Lee

will try to dedicate the whole country to God if he became president. Some also gibed that God would be sued by Lee if he didn't become president, given all the religious fervor Lee had publicly demonstrated. Some more analytic minds tried to give it a more nuanced shot, calling it as Lee's deliberate advance to appeal to the Christian voters.

In fact, a still nagging misconception about Lee is that he is a politician who simply tries to benefit from his religious constituency. That's a great understatement of Lee's faith. Lee is a Christian and a "real" one for that matter. As a person born into a devout Christian family, Lee once said that the biggest blessing he had received from his mother was "coming to know the love of God". It is also well known that Lee - the ex-chief executive of the Hyundai conglomerate - had volunteered for more than three years as a church parking guide on Sunday mornings to get voted as an elder of his church. He realized that dream in 1995.

After he won the nomination from the Grand National Party as its presidential candidate, the first place Lee visited was the National Cemetery in southern Seoul, where the remains of some 54,000 patriots and soldiers killed during the Korean War are buried. It is a traditional gesture for politicians. But the second place Lee visited was the Christian Council of Korea (CCK). Reverend Lee Yong-kyu, head of CCK, greeted Lee amid a swarm of journalists:
I congratulate you on being nominated as the party's presidential candidate, which was possible because of God's power and authority that was behind you in your going through this difficult time. I trust that God will lead you to the eventual victory.
The media event created a controversy even within his own party regarding its "appropriateness" for a presidential candidate who should exude an air of impartiality. Lee's aides feared such a photo-op might give a wrong impression to those having other religions. But Lee didn't seem to mind.

In 2006, Lee also sent a video prayer message to a Christian rally held in the southern city of Busan in which the worship leader prayed feverishly: "Lord, let the Buddhist temples in this country crumble down!" That footage - which someone poked fun at by cleverly comparing it to Ronald Reagan's famous speech, "Mr [Mikhail] Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - drew palpable and anticipated uproars from the Buddhists and even some from Christians.

Some feared that the repercussion and Lee's unconcealed self-identifying with Christianity would undermine his presidential candidacy because South Korea historically has a huge Buddhist population, in spite of the very aggressive evangelism outreach of Christians, seen in its recent history.

According to the latest figure from the Korea National Statistical Office, conducted in December 2005, among South Korea's 47 million population, 53% were counted as having any kind of religion. Among them were Buddhists, 22.8% (10 million); Protestants, 18.3% (8.6 million); and Catholics, 10.9% (5.1 million). In addition, among the almost half of the nation's population who don't outwardly identify themselves with any religion, many of them privately follow Buddhism as their family tradition.

But, apparently, God must have been so pleased with Lee's outspoken endorsement of Him because the divine entity blessed Lee in his running for the presidency. Otherwise, how else can Lee - a person who attributes all matters of life to God's divine providence - explain his victory? Lee won the presidential seat by earning 48.6% support from voters, clearly distinguishing himself from the second runner, Chung Dong-young, who earned a distant 26.2%. During the campaign, Chang Sang, another Christian presidential candidate and a PhD graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, complained that Lee's outspoken wooing of the Christian constituency was unfairly helping him to rake in as much as 80% of Korea's Christian votes.
Christianity was introduced to Korea in the late 19th century. Last year, many Korean Christians celebrated the centennial anniversary of the 1907 "Pyongyang Revival", commemorating an event when Christianity began to spread rapidly across the peninsula. Christianity carries a proud record in steering the country's recent history.

Many church leaders were patriots who stood at the forefront of the anti-Japanese movement. Koreans also had a positive image of Christianity, particularly after the Korean War in the 1950s when American church groups and missionaries helped the poverty-stricken nation by providing food, setting up hospitals and schools. During the dictatorship period under president Park Chung-hee, church leaders fought for the nation's democracy. And many Christians volunteered to hand in their gold and other jewelry in a mass effort to bail out the bankrupt nation during the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98.

However, as Christianity has become socially active, vocal and powerful, it also started to draw its share of criticism. Critics point out that some denominations of Christianity don't tolerate other religious beliefs and many of the evangelical Korean Christians are more fervent than their Western counterparts, and even curse those who don't believe as they do.

The most recent controversy erupted when a picture of a Buddhist monk being harassed by an overzealous Christian brandishing a cross surfaced on one of the country's popular websites, dcinside.com. Critics also pointed out some of the immoral conducts committed by church leaders, some including sexual abuses.

A blogger, "Delicious" said, "The pesky evangelical enthusiasm and profit-seeking activities by churches is turning the country into a cemetery. Wherever there is a place with human presence, within a 50-meter radius there is also a church with a red-cross sign high up in the sky."

Anti-Christian sentiment in South Korea reached its highest point last year when 23 missionaries, all from the same Protestant church, were held hostage after entering Islamic Afghanistan with an ultimate goal of converting the people into Christians. Two were killed before the other 21 were returned to Korea, but for a few months after their homecoming angry protesters picketed in front of their church.

Although Lee Myung-bak was primarily voted as president due to people's high hopes for the nation's economic revival, some fear Lee may fill his new cabinet with "churchgoers". That concern was palpable when Lee picked the head of the very powerful Presidential Transition Committee from the same church where he is an elder.

The Somang Presbyterian Church where Lee and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, a deaconess, attend has 70,000 registered attendants managed by 20 pastors. In addition, Lee Kyung-sook, the head of Lee's Presidential Transition Committee, other church members are the president-elect's brother Lee Sang-deuk, who is also the vice speaker of the National Assembly; lawmaker Chung Mong-jun, who last week met with US President George W Bush in Washington as the president-elect's envoy; Yoon Young-kwan, the ex-foreign minister; Hong In-ki, ex-head of the Korea Stock Exchange; Kim Shin-bae, chief executive officer of SK Telecom who sat next to Google chief Eric Schmidt at the recent Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. And the list goes on ...

Some joked that Lee's government should be called "Somang government", noting the name of the church and the church's influence on the nation's politics and industry. "Somang" literally means "hope" in Korean.

This month, Lee attended a prayer meeting hosted by CCK, the conservative Christian organization that supported Lee during the presidential campaign, including its 800-member pastors, and there Lee correctly pointed out, "Korean society is deeply divided." Lee proceeded to cite regional, generational and ideological divides in the nation. Yet he failed to cite the religious divide. Perhaps, he doesn't smell it in the air yet.

And perhaps South Koreans should be ready for a day when Lee solemnly reads out a statement dedicating the nation to God. Perhaps, it's salubrious for one of his aides to whisper to Lee that there is a joke circulating in town these days that says: "Lee Myung-bak is a president anointed by God, not voted by people." His aide should also tell the chosen one that it wasn't necessarily meant to be a compliment.

Sunny Lee is a writer based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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