The day after Park Geun-hye, former President of South Korea, was sentenced to twenty four years in prison on corruption charges, I spent the afternoon peering down from a second floor coffee shop, which overlooked a small – but very audible – congregation of Park’s die-hard supporters on the street below.
Last Friday 6 April 2018, Park Geun-hye (pictured below in both unblurred and blurred handcuffs) was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $16.8 million. She was found guilty on charges of criminal corruption and collusion with her close confidant, Choi Soon-sil, for take bribes from Korean conglomerates including Samsung.
This Saturday morning protest was not the first time that I have stumbled across a pro-Park rally on the streets of South Korea. However, on this day, I specifically came to the pro-Park supporters’ usual location in downtown Daegu to watch the protest and gauge their reaction to the news of Park’s prison sentence (especially as Park is a Daegu native herself).
There were the usual sights: a small truck set up as a make-shift stage, large posters of Park Geun-hye’s face magnanimously smiling down at a smattering of flag-waving protesters.
The crowd, at its largest, composed of three dozen white haired Koreans (I would easily estimate the median age in the 60 year old range).
Draped banners warned passers-by that South Korea’s current President Moon Jae-in is slowly turning the country into a Communist state. These posters were characteristically littered with a liberal use of exclamation points and derogatory play-on-words; my favourite being 문재앙. Such wit.
The near parity of US flags to Korean flags waving at the rally can be explained relatively simply: go to any pro-Park rally and politically conservative protesters wave both Korean and US flags together to highlight their support of the Korea-US security alliance.
The legacy of American military and economic support since the 1950s Korean war is still palpably felt among this stratum of elderly Koreans. For them, the US is the best buffer against “North Korean sympathisers” or “proto-Communists” lurking on the South Korean political scene.
I was surprised, however, to see a number of Israeli flags being flown alongside the usual Korean and US flags.
To the best of my knowledge, I couldn’t recall there being a special diplomatic or political relationship that South Korea and Israel shared.
At best, I could think that both countries share some idiosyncratic features: both have compulsory military conscription, perhaps a mutual admiration of each other’s 20th century robust democratisation and their disproportionate economic dynamism in their given regions follow similar trajectories.
Given the nature of the rally, I particularly struggled to think how any diplomatic relationship would really be relevant to Park Geun-hye’s prison sentence, which centred on wholly domestic issues of corruption and influence peddling.
A job for Google
The author of the article spoke with Israeli flag-waving pro-Park supporters present at a February 2017 rally (organised to show support for Park during the process of her impeachment).
These supporters explained that they brought Israeli flags, wooden crosses and other religious paraphernalia to broadcast symbols their faith at the rally.
The article’s author apparently reached out to the US and Israeli embassies in Seoul, asking if they could elucidate on this use of Israel’s flag as proxies for protestors’ religious affiliations; he reported that both were not available for comment.
In an article discussing the relationship between Korean Christians and Jewish communities, a historian of Christianity at Vanderbilt University, Paul Lim, was quoted saying, “Some Korean evangelicals are really, really big on Israel”.
It stems from the desire of many conservative Koreans to tie themselves inexorably to the US and the influence of pro-Israel American evangelical views on their Korean counterparts. It has resulted in them espousing the same attitudes (often on face value) and supporting the same causes.
Advocating for the Israeli state is a core concern of many Republican-leaning evangelical communities in the US. As a result, the counterpart Korean communities follow suit and have thrown their support behind the Israeli state, as a prerequisite for the return of the Messiah as evangelicals interpret the Book of Revelations.
Conservatism and Christian Evangelicalism in South Korea
Twenty nine percent of the South Korean population identifies as Christian – about three-quarters Protestant, one quarter Catholic. However, their zeal is so enormous that it overshadows the 23 percent who are Buddhist, and the 46 percent who say they have no religion at all. Politicians pay attention because many evangelicals are active voters on social policy issues.
A Diplomat Magazine article detailed how South Korean Protestants remain a powerful conservative force, picketing LGBT Pride events, demonstrating against North Korea, and have even protesting against the introduction of halal meat in some stores, a move which was originally meant to attract tourists from Muslim countries.
However, unlike American vvangelicals, who have long been considered a cohesive voting bloc, David Halloran Lumsdaine wrote in Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Asia that Korean “Evangelical voters are not a unified bloc, and the voting patterns are more complex”.
For example, the generational divide is more stark in Korea than it would be in other countries. This is mainly delineated by the shadow of the Korean war.
For the elderly generation of Koreans who “remember a time of war and poverty, Evangelical Christian messages still resonates, but for those who have come of age in an era of relative peace and wealth, the prosperity gospel “doesn’t have the same magic appeal,” according to Brother Anthony, a longtime observer of South Korea’s religious movements.
The large generational divide apparent at the Daegu demonstration would add credence to this idea. I saw no supporter my age or younger participating in the rally.
So why do so many elderly Christians carry Israeli flags (the flag of the only Jewish state in the world) as a sign of their faith?
As I read up about Israeli flags’ presence at right-wing pro-Park rallies as an outward symbol of Evangelical Christian faith, I only became more perplexed.
Park Geun-hye is an atheist and the apparent support for Park by Christian conservative Koreans – as evidenced by the presence of these Israeli flags – is utterly strange.
This is especially peculiar given how Park Geu-hye’s political career ended. Using Judeo-Christian symbolism to support a potential shamanist cult member does seem to ring hollow.
During her downfall and impeachment, Park Geun-hye was accused of being involved with shamanistic Pagan-type cult figures. For me, that seems like something that would not please staunch Christian supporters.
However, I would speculate that Christian supporters may have been happy to overlook Park’s potential cult affiliations/flirtations and endeavour to separate the person from the Presidency.
The Park Geun-hye administration from from 2013 to 2017 was a relatively more ideologically conservative regime compared to other recent South Korean Presidents. Her policies tended to please Protestant voters’ anti-communist sentiments and their vocal support for socially conservative and more culturally traditional policies.
In direct contrast, the progressive Moon Jae-in administration – with its steep influx of spending on social policies and state services – may appear too much like the beginning of Communist creep and North Korean appeasement; too for these religious conservative Park supporters to stomach (even if Moon himself is a practising Catholic).
For myriad reasons, these loyal supporters all endured a bitingly windy Spring morning in Daegu last Saturday to show their support for their beloved and beleaguered ex-President, wave Israeli flags to highlight their Evangelical Christian credentials and – probably most importantly – publicly demonstrate their aversion to the current administration in the Blue House and its seemingly unforgivable ‘socialist’ policies.