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Is new Korean president out of step with the Church?

SEOUL (SE): Many hearts in the Catholic Church sank when the news broke on December 19 last year that Juliana Park Geun-hye had won the election to become the next president of the Republic of Korea, UCA News reported.

The Hong Kong-based news agency said that with few exceptions, she holds views that are diametrically opposed to the mainstream Catholic community on burning issues such as the death penalty, construction of new nuclear plants, free trade agreements, the Five Rivers Dam Project and the naval base on the pristine island of Jeju.

“It is a pity,” Father Jang Dong-hun admitted.

In October, as secretary of the bishops’ conference committee for justice and peace, Father Jang sent a questionnaire on various social and political issues to the main presidential candidates, to establish whose opinions were closest to Church social teaching.

He pointed out that Park was the only one not to reply.

However, he explained that her opinions can be summarised through her various speeches and declarations. He described her as a keen supporter of the death penalty and free trade agreements and a strong belief in the construction of a giant naval base on Jeju Island, which has been declared by the United Nations as one of the pristine beauty spots of the world.

On the highly controversial Five Rivers Dam Project she has remained silent and appears cautious on the notion of building more nuclear reactors.

But Father Jang fears that her regime will continue and even deepen the trend started by her predecessor, Lee Myong-bak.

“For the past five years under President Lee Myong-bak, money became the prime factor in Korean society, while everything else went unheeded,” Father Jang reflected.

However, not everyone is pessimistic about the new president. “She has other agendas too,” a long time missionary to Korea told the Sunday Examiner. “If she can succeed in her ambitions to strengthen the country’s social benefit programme, she will bring great benefit to the country.”

He added that he does not believe that she is tarred with the same brush as her father, former president, Park Chung-hee, and accusations against her on this level are a bit unfair.

He also pointed out that recently she called a meeting of big industrialists in the country and told them that their fortunes have been built on the sweat of the people and that it is time to give something back.

Nevertheless, he admitted that she has a big challenge in front of her, as she is surrounded by more right wing politicians who would share the winner takes all ideal of her predecessor in the Blue House.

“In many ways she has had a privileged life,” he commented, “but she has also had to make her own way a lot too. We will have to wait and see.”

The 61-year-old Park is the daughter of the late dictator-president, who ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1961, when he led a military coup, until his assassination in 1979.

He pioneered the industrialisation of Korea and is credited by many with leading the nation out of poverty to its present state of prosperity. But he was also a ferocious suppressor of human rights and democracy.

The Catholic Church largely opposed his dictatorship and several priests, including the late Bishop Daniel Tji Hak-soon, from Wonju, were imprisoned, as were young people from the Young Christian Workers, some of whom were killed.

UCA News says that Park professed no religion and seemed to dislike all forms of faith equally. 

However, his daughter was baptised in the Catholic Church while she was a student at the Jesuit-run Sogang University, but today says she has no particular faith belief.

But in more recent years she too has said she follows no religion.

Some Catholics are doing their best to put a positive spin on the election result. Fabiano Choi Hong-jun, the president of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea, said that as more than half of the voters supported Park, it could be good for national unity.

In previous elections, the large number of main candidates led to a split vote, so government lacked any strong majority.

He said that he hopes that “Park embraces her opponents and makes a society where people can trust and communicate with each other.”

“As a Catholic leader, I hope she takes more interest in Catholic social teaching and makes society respect life and human rights,” he continued.

Park has promised to give more attention to what she calls the grassroots economy, especially women. But Elizabeth Choi Guem-ja, a co-representative of the Korean Catholic Women’s Community for a New World, is skeptical.

“Park is a woman, but I’m not sure if she is a prepared woman president, as she lacks feminist policies,” she said.

Father Jang seemed very clear on what the Church stance should be towards the new incumbent. “Juliana Park was elected by the halo of the so called myth of Park Chung-hee and the money worship that dominates Korea,” he said.

“In this situation, our Church has a historical responsibility to change the current by carrying the torch of justice and the common good,” Father Jang concluded.

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