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'Korean Presidents Fall Into Trap of Blurring Line Between Church and State'

By Kang Hyun-kyung, The Korea Times, Mac 30, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Back in 1981, the late former President Kim Dae-jung, then a democracy fighter in exile in the United States, delivered a speech on the topic of his affinity to American Presbyterians at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Kim, a Catholic, referred to Jesus Christ as "brother" numerous times during the speech to curry favor with the audience whose country is based on Protestant culture.

Later, the man was elected president of South Korea, where three major religions - Buddhism, Protestantism and Catholicism - combined account for approximately 50 percent of the total population.

According to a 2005 survey, Buddhists make up 22.8 percent of the population, followed by Protestants with 18.3 percent and Catholics with 10.9 percent.

The Constitution makes it clear that no leaders are allowed to endorse an official religion of the state, noting the doctrine of the separation of religion and state.

After Kim's speech at Harvard, a female professor plunged him into deep trouble with a burning question.

"As I recall, she was wondering why many South Korean politicians, including Kim, took advantage of Protestantism for their campaigns in a country that is not based on the Christian culture," said Professor Park Gwang-seo of Sogang University.

Park was then a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after having obtained his doctorate degree in physics from Brown University.

"I had the same question in my mind for a long time, and this brought me to Harvard for the session. She put the question that otherwise I was going to ask," Park said in an interview with The Korea Times Thursday.

Park, an admirer of Kim for his sacrifice and dedication to democracy, noted Kim touting his strong bonds with Protestants many times by using the phrase "Brother Jesus" even before the speech.

He read the stories on tentatively titled, "Independence" and "Liberty," Korean newspapers circulated among ethnic Koreans in the northeastern part of the United States. These papers ran the speeches made by Kim, in their entirety, in the 1970s and 80s.

At the time, access to such content was not permitted to Koreans living in Korea due to the strict regulations of the authoritarian government.

The two newspapers have since gone out of business.

Politics and Religion

Park, also co-chairman of the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom (KIRF), remarked that the late former President was not the only politician who "used" religion in his campaign.

"All presidential candidates took advantage of religion during their campaigns," he said.

Pollster, Yoon Hee-woong, from the Korea Society Opinion Institute mentioned that the effect of a religious leader's endorsement of a particular candidate on real election results is negligible.

"No meaningful association between the two was found," he said.

A KIRF poll of 300 Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic leaders in 2007 found former President Kim Young-sam, a Christian, was considered one of the most biased politicians, when it came to religion.

He scored 42.7 percent in the survey.

The late President Syngman Rhee came in second with 30 percent, followed by Chun Doo-hwan with 8.6 percent, Park Chung-hee with 7.5 percent and Kim Dae-jung with 6 percent.

None of the interviewees called the late former President Roh Moo-hyun religiously biased.

The late Rhee was a Protestant, Chun a Buddhist, and the late Park and the late Roh described themselves as atheists.

Contrasting Lessons

Professor Park observed that among the former Presidents -- Kim Young-sam and the late Kim Dae-jung -- tried to make the most of religion in their campaigns.

The former's appointment of Protestant figures for major posts backfired as he faced protests from numerous Buddhists.

But the latter's selection of more Catholics and Protestants rather than Buddhists for key posts didn't lead to clashes.

Under the late Kim's presidency, more than half of the figures who held major positions on the presidential committees were Protestants, including pastors.

Meanwhile, of those who described themselves as Buddhists, there were less than 10 percent.

The professor pointed out the fact that the then, first lady Lee Hee-ho is a Protestant, saying this might have had an effect on the late Kim's nominations.

Given the 2005 survey of the population of the three major religions, Protestants and Catholics were overrepresented in major government posts during the administrations led by the two prior presidents.

Despite their similarity in nominations, the aforementioned KIRF survey in 2007 revealed very different results regarding the assessments by religious leaders of both former president Kims when it came to their use of religion.

On opposite sides of the spectrum, Kim Young-sam was depicted as the most biased leader, while the late Kim Dae-jung came last in the survey.

The former, who is a Protestant, had a difficult time with Buddhists, while the latter had no trouble with them at all.

When asked to explain the distinction, Park responded that it was probably because their leadership styles were completely different.

"The living Kim was straightforward while in office, whereas the late Kim was more flexible," she said.

"The latter knew the consequences of his words and deeds, and he tried to avoid possible headaches."

Kim Dae-jung had also learned a lesson from his predecessor regarding such matters.

Protestant Presidents vs. Buddhists

The tendency of politicians to manipulate religion as part of a campaign strategy often results in a backlash from opposing religious groups after taking office.

The former President Kim and incumbent President Lee Myung-bak have one thing in common: Both are Protestants who must deal with angry Buddhists.

Lee's relationship with Buddhist leaders has always been prickly since he was sworn in, back in February 2008.

He filled major posts, including Cabinet ministers, as well as presidential secretaries, with Protestants. Some of them were his church friends, such as Lee Kyung-sook, former chairwoman of the presidential transition team, Kang Man-soo, chairman of the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness and former presidential secretary Park Mi-seok.

Buddhists' resentment reached a peak following the news report that police had made Ven. Jikwan of the Jogye Temple halt his vehicle at the temple's gate in July.

The police demanded that the Buddhist leader show his ID card to see if he was one of the organizers of the anti-American beef protests.

Aides of Ven. Jikwan said later that the police were rude and showed no respect to the Buddhist leader.

Incensed Buddhists launched a protest against Lee and demanded that the President apologize for what his deputies did and that his aides stop their discriminatory acts based on religion.

During the summer, the streets of downtown Seoul were crowded with demonstrators who were discontent about the government's decision to resume U.S. beef imports.

Former presidential secretary, Choo Bu-ghil's description of those protests in a private prayer meeting as "Satanic" also stirred up Buddhists.

During his presidency, Kim Young-sam was also under criticism from Buddhists for his alleged discrimination. Kim, who was born into a Protestant family, picked 13 Protestants for ministers, four Catholics and only two Buddhists in his first appointments of Cabinet members after being sworn in, back in 1993.

Things went from bad to worse when those chosen deputies committed blunders in public office.

Kim Sook-hee, then education minister, suddenly postponed the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) test date. The change to the exam schedule was announced a mere 12 days before the planned date.

Kim made the decision after Protestant groups had proposed the delay indicating that the original date of April 4 fell on the Easter holiday.

The delay of the GED test was considered discriminatory, considering that the schedule for several other qualification exams falling on Buddha's Birthday of the same year went ahead as scheduled.

These incidents did not go unnoticed by the Buddhists.

Furthermore, the displeasure of Buddhists of Kim's presidency was a combined result of the disregard of Kim's deputies and the internal discord at the Jogye Temple.

In 1994, approximately 1,500 police were sent to Jogye Temple when a power struggle over leadership between two camps of Buddhist monks turned violent.

Clashes followed when then leader Ven. Seo Eu-hyun was elected to the leadership post for a third consecutive term, despite rejection from his opponents.

Opponents took collective action and alleged that Kim Young-sam supported Ven. Seo Eu-hyun, claiming the Buddhist leader endorsed him during the presidential election in 1992.

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