SEOUL, South Korea — Supporters credit him with “Moses’ leadership and Solomon’s wisdom.” Detractors invoke labels like “narcissistic demagogue” and “fake prophet.”
Whatever else the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon may be called, there is no denying that the 63-year-old Presbyterian pastor has become a force to be reckoned with in South Korea, spearheading a conservative pushback against President Moon Jae-in. Once dismissed as a crank, Mr. Jun has attracted huge crowds to his rallies in central Seoul in recent weeks, forcing Mr. Moon’s justice minister, Cho Kuk, to step down. He is also demanding Mr. Moon’s resignation, calling it “an order from the Lord.”
“We cannot let a madman drive a car,” Mr. Jun said about Mr. Moon during an interview, a reference to a comment by a German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on Hitler. He adds, without evidence: “Moon Jae-in is the main North Korean spy.”
Mr. Jun rouses his crowds, mostly older Christians, by constantly repeating such incendiary but easy-to-remember tag lines. Progressive leaders like Mr. Moon are “Communizing” South Korea, he says. Those “followers of North Korea” are “driving the country to ruin” by prying South Korea away from the United States and taking it closer to North Korea and China, he warns.
Mr. Jun’s rise shares many aspects with the surge of Western right-wing populism: an appeal to patriotism and nativism; a penchant for ideological and anti-immigrant slurs; a frequent invocation of God and tradition; and the use of alternative news sources on social media to spread resentment and stoke fear that the country is in danger of “collapsing” or being “wiped off the face of the Earth.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Jun is a great admirer of President Trump. When Mr. Trump visited Seoul in 2017, Mr. Jun’s church members took to the streets, holding placards that read, “God be with President Trump” or “We pray for President Trump.” He says American evangelical Christians were “cheated by Obama” and elected Mr. Trump to prevent the United States from being Islamized through immigration.
Mr. Jun says South Korea is “a child of the United States” because the Americans liberated Korea from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II and defended it from Communist invaders during the 1950-53 Korean War. His rallies feature as many American flags as South Korean. Speaker after speaker calls anyone they suspect of undermining the alliance with Washington “evil” or “Satan,” while the crowds respond with “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”
The chances of Mr. Moon resigning are all but nil, and analysts treat Mr. Jun as a quixotic firebrand whose flame will eventually peter out. But in past months, the pastor has brewed a political firestorm by exploiting two powerful sentiments: a fear of North Korea that is widespread among older South Koreans and growing discontent over an ailing domestic economy.
Mr. Moon’s office initially dismissed Mr. Jun’s expletive-ridden diatribes against the president as “not worth commenting upon.” But last month, Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party asked the police to investigate Mr. Jun on charges of inciting sedition after he exhorted followers to join a band of “martyrs” who would invade Mr. Moon’s presidential Blue House to topple him.
“His rallies could be off-putting to non-Christians because they look like church revival meetings, and some of his remarks, like his claim that Moon is a North Korean spy, sound over-the-top and propagandistic,” said Hwang Gui-hag, editor in chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which specializes in church law and news. “But the thing is, his strategy works, making him a force that cannot be ignored.”
Mr. Jun was born in Yecheon, in central South Korea, the eldest son in a deeply religious family that was converted by American missionaries who reached their village by river more than a century ago.
He reached a defining moment in his life when, falling behind in his school classes, he was sent to live with a relative who was a pastor. By day he attended a vocational high school in electronics. At night, the Princeton-educated pastor taught Mr. Jun English and had him read widely, including the biography of South Korea’s autocratic founding president, Syngman Rhee, another Princeton-educated Christian, who relied on humanitarian aid from American churches and favored fellow Christians in his government.
Mr. Jun said he was strongly influenced by the pastor, who was dedicated to the rights of the urban poor. Schooled in the idea that the church could serve as an instrument for social and political change, he enrolled in a seminary after high school.
“Throughout history, the church has always been a political organization,” Mr. Jun said.
South Korea’s churches have a history of political activism. Progressive pastors and priests campaigned against the military dictators who ruled the country in past decades. But conservative pastors equate religious faith with anti-Communist patriotism. Many of the mega churches in Seoul, with congregations of tens of thousands, were founded by evangelical Christians who fled Communist persecution in North Korea before the Korean War.
Mr. Jun said he began organizing his “patriots’ rallies” in 2005, after his high school son came home one day to say that President George W. Bush should be killed. The episode convinced him that unionized progressive teachers were poisoning children with anti-American and pro-North Korean ideology.
Mr. Jun’s Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul claims a congregation of 5,000, and while his profile is rising, local news outlets have tended to write about him only to ridicule his ideas.
He once said South Korea should boost its birthrates, one of the world’s lowest, by punishing families that produce fewer than five children. He also said that South Korea should Christianize itself by incarcerating all Buddhist monks on an island. He once remarked that he was so trusted in his church that female members would “take their panties off” before him if he told them to.
Mr. Jun dismisses those remarks, saying either that he did not mean them literally or that the news media had quoted him out of context.
But Mr. Jun still calls abortion “murder” and says homosexuality makes the world “dirty.” His sermons brim with Islamophobic messages, and he routinely calls Arab immigrants potential “terrorists.”
In January, Mr. Jun won an important political perch when he was elected head of the Christian Council of Korea, an umbrella group for conservative churches.
When he held news conferences with his new title in June to demand Mr. Moon’s resignation, rival pastors called him “a son of vipers.” The National Council of Churches in Korea denounced him for leading his followers into “mass hysteria” through lies and fake statistics.
Still, most South Koreans did not take Mr. Jun seriously until Mr. Moon’s appointment of Mr. Cho as justice minister in August. Following news reports of a slew of ethical lapses in Mr. Cho’s family, Mr. Jun pounced. As public ire soared, his weekend rallies ballooned into some of the largest anti-government protests South Korea has seen in years.
Mr. Jun has strong supporters among right-wing YouTube channels, which live-stream his rallies and promote viral narratives that spread resentment and polarize the society. Mr. Jun runs his own YouTube channel and helps fund like-minded YouTubers. He is also sponsoring the Christian Liberty Party, which hopes to become the first faith-based political party to win a seat in Parliament in April.
Each night, hundreds of Mr. Jun’s followers camp out near Mr. Moon’s office to demand his resignation. When Mr. Jun appears in the morning, some rush to him offering cash donations and seeking his blessing. Some come from afar, like Kim Seok-nam, 69, who flew from Sacramento, Calif., to join the sit-in for a few days. “He is a latter-day prophet,” Ms. Kim said after Mr. Jun blessed her with a prayer, putting his hand on her head, while she knelt and wept. She said she has donated $4,000 to Mr. Jun’s cause.
“It’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” Mr. Jun said, when asked about his success. “It’s not me, but people’s anger against Moon that brought them out to my rallies.”
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