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Cablegate: Religious Fervor Among Korean Voters

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHUL #2269/01 2080804
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 270804Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5735
INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 2885
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2996
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC//OSD/ISA/EAP//
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUEHIN/AIT TAIPEI 2091
RUALSFJ/COMUSJAPAN YOKOTA AB JA
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SEOUL 002269

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KS
SUBJECT: RELIGIOUS FERVOR AMONG KOREAN VOTERS


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SUMMARY
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1. (SBU) Religion is emerging as an influencing factor in the
December South Korean presidential election. Both liberal
and conservative religious groups have formed liaisons with
like-minded NGOs, bolstering each side's position on
controversial issues. In particular, conservative Protestant
groups have been vocal about their support for the opposition
Grand National Party (GNP) and its candidates. As
presidential hopefuls try to rally support among the
religious population by attending religious events, their own
religious beliefs have been thrust into the spotlight.
Notably, frontrunner Lee Myung-bak's devout belief in
Christianity has garnered support from Protestants while most
Buddhists remain wary. END SUMMARY.

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RELIGIOUS GROUPS: INCREASING POLITICAL CLOUT
--------------------------------------------

2. (U) Religion is emerging as an influencing factor in the
December South Korean presidential election. In a survey of
the Protestant population by a Korean Daily, Kookmin Ilbo, on
February 15, 64.7 percent of the surveyed said that whether
the presidential candidate is Protestant or not is an
important criterion. Of those surveyed, 50.2 percent
responded that in past elections they have voted for certain
candidates because they were fellow Protestants. Supposing
that there would be a Protestant candidate for the upcoming
election, 61.5 percent said they would vote for the
Protestant candidate. Meanwhile, 89.7 percent of the
respondents saw it in a positive light that an increasing
number of Protestant leaders have become politically active.

3. (U) While pundits' opinions are divided on whether or not
religion is a significant factor in the election, they all
agree that the role of religious groups and leaders has grown
significantly in the political sphere. Both liberal and
conservative Christian groups joined forces with NGOs
mirroring their beliefs on the political spectrum, and
emerged as formidable actors on the political scene as they
raised their voices about controversial issues. For
instance, the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), a
conservative Protestant churches' group, has aligned with the
"New Right" NGOs and rallied support for the GNP's position
on issues such as the revision of the Private School Law,
U.S.- ROK alliance and North Korea policy. (Note:
conservative organizations began to emerge as the "New
Rights" aiming to replace the so-called "Old right force"
after GNP's failure in the 2004 National Assembly election.
End Note.)

4. (U) Presidential hopefuls have also been trying to cater
to the religious communities for support. After experiencing
a severe backlash from non-Christians because of his 2004
remark "devot(ing) Seoul to God," the leading candidate from
the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), Lee Myung-bak,
has been trying to garner support from Buddhists while trying
to reaffirm the support from the Protestant community.
(Note: According to statistics released by the Korean
National Statistical Office in May, 2006, 22.8 percent of the
total population identified themselves as Buddhists; 18.3
percent as Protestants, and 10.9 percent as Catholics. End
Note.) Most of the leading presidential hopefuls -- notably
Lee and Park Geun-hye from the GNP, and Sohn Hak-kyu and
Chung Dong-young from the liberal side -- showed up at the
celebration of Buddha's birthday on May 24 at Jogye-sa, the
largest temple in South Korea. Lee, Park and Sohn also
showed up at the Protestant service on Easter, attended by
30,000 people.

5. (U) In addition, both the conservative and liberal sides
have been recruiting religious leaders and NGOs into their
camp or inviting them to preside as the "elders" at their
political events. At the GNP verification hearing on July
19, Pastor In Myung-jin and the Venerable Bokwang were on the
panel, grilling the two GNP frontrunners about their past.
On July 4, Pastor Park Hyung-kyu and Father Kim Byung-sang
participated in the first meeting of the liberal presidential
hopefuls at which they agreed to hold a joint primary and
field a sole liberal candidate.
--------------------------------------------- ---
CONSERVATIVE PROTESTANTS MOST ACTIVE IN POLITICS
--------------------------------------------- ---

6. (U) Among all religious groups in Korea, conservative
Protestant groups are the most active in pursuing a role in
politics. While other religious communities, such as
Buddhist and Catholic groups, hold back from endorsing a
specific candidate or party for the upcoming election, some
Protestant groups have had no qualms about doing so. On June
21, "Korea Christian Reform Movement," a conservative
Protestant organization, announced their official endorsement
of Lee Myung-bak for president. Choi Hee Boum, Executive
Secretary of CCK, informed the Embassy of CCK's "plans and

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ways to get around the election law to support the GNP
candidate." For example, they would have Christian revivals
where participants would not mention any specific candidates,
but would have "a deep understanding of whom they are praying
for," he said. Current Korean election law bans campaigning
before the "official campaigning period" which lasts for just
the 23 days prior to the presidential election.

7. (U) Some religious groups decided to use their position to
influence who would be elected to public office, mimicking
the progressive NGOs' "Rejection Campaign" in the 2000
National Assembly elections. In 2000, a coalition of 463
NGOs compiled a list of candidates "unqualified" for seats in
the National Assembly and campaigned against them. Signaling
that they want to play a similar role in the 2008 National
Assembly elections, a month ago CCK announced their selection
of five parliamentarians to "reject," those who CCK viewed as
unqualified candidates for the National Assembly because they
opposed re-revision of the Private School Law. Among the
five was Lee Hae-chan, a liberal presidential hopeful who is
rumored to be backed by the current South Korean president
Roh Moo-hyun.

8. (U) While liberal Christian groups have yet to endorse a
candidate among the disarray in the liberal side, both
progressive and conservative Christian groups joined forces
with NGOs with similar political beliefs. With the South
Korean presidential election only five months away, both
sides reorganized themselves into several large forums. On
July 10, 2007, 20 conservative Christian groups formed the
"Christian Union for Development," as a part of the
"Pan-National Movement for Development," a coalition of 90
conservative NGOs which will embark on a nationwide tour from
September to November to promote conservative policies. On
July 2, 70 politically liberal pastors launched the
"Christian Initiative Committee" to establish the "Korean
Progressive Solidarity," an alliance of 22 liberal NGOs.

9. (U) While not all Protestants view this trend in a
positive light, an increasing number of Protestants support
it. In a survey of 1,500 Protestants by Korean National
Association of Christian Pastors (KACP) in May 2007, 59.5
percent responded they support churches' participation in
politics. This is a jump from 42.7 percent of support rate
from the same survey in February 2007. Meanwhile, the
percentage of those surveyed who responded negatively toward
this trend decreased from 52 percent to 37.5 percent.

--------------------------------------------- --
RELIGIOUS PROFILES OF THE PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS
--------------------------------------------- --

10. (U) Lee Myung-bak is a devout Protestant and an "Elder"
at Somang Church in Apgujeong-dong, an affluent neighborhood
in Seoul. According to political observers, his declaration
that he would "devote Seoul to God" at a Christian prayer
service in a Seoul gymnasium on May 30, 2004, was an apparent
move to rally support from Christians in Seoul against the
government's plan to move the capital to Chungchong Province.
Buddhist groups lashed out at Lee, condemning the Mayor for
making political remarks at a religious event. In an effort
to defend himself, he explained later that the word "devote"
was not meant literally, but Buddhists still remain wary of
Lee. Kim Pan-dong, Planning & Public Relations Team leader
at Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, said the Buddhist
community is worried about Lee's "exclusive attitude toward
other religions." Their concern about Lee resulted in
another controversy when Lee made a speech via video at a
gathering of Christian groups' in Busan in June 2006 at which
the participants reportedly prayed for the "destruction of
Buddhist temples in Busan."

11. (U) Some Catholics were also irked by Lee Myung-bak's
comment that "abortion may be inevitable in some cases such
as deformity or disability" on May 12 2007. Among
Protestants, however, Lee continues to receive strong
support. According to the May 23 survey by Munhwa Ilbo, a
Korean daily, 53.8 percent of the Protestants surveyed
supported Lee. In a meeting with emboffs, Choi Hee Boum,
Executive Secretary of CCK, stated that the group "prefers"
Lee Myung-bak and implied that they will launch a campaign
for him after the primary. Meanwhile, Lee continued his
rally for support from the Protestant community by visiting
the families of the 23 South Korean hostages in Afghanistan
on July 23, despite some early criticism toward the hostages
for their fervent missionary work.

12. (U) Park Geun-hye is popular among Buddhists although she
is reputed to be an atheist. When she was younger, however,
she reportedly practiced Catholicism and Buddhism; she was
baptized as "Juliana" in her college days and also received a
Buddhist name in 2005, according to press. Devout Korean
Buddhists are predominantly made up of older females who
prefer Park over Lee, says Park Hui-seung, Assistant Deputy
Director of Planning and Coordination at Jogye Order of
Korean Buddhism. It helps her popularity that her mother Yuk
Young-soo, wife of former President Park Chung-hee, was a
devout Buddhist and very popular among Koreans for her image
of a serene First Lady, explains Kim Pan-dong at Jogye Order
of Korean Buddhism.

13. (U) Several liberal candidates have associated with
liberal, some radical, Christian organizations in their
younger days as student activists although they do not
emphasize this in their election campaigns. The frontrunner
on the liberal side, Sohn Hak-kyu, worked as a Secretary for
Human Rights at the liberal Protestant churches' group,
National Council of Churches in Korea (KNCC), in the 1960s
and 1970s. Sohn's graduate studies at Oxford University in
the United Kingdom were funded by a Protestant group, the
World Council of Churches. However, his aides currently
emphasize Sohn's close relationship with Buddhist leaders.
Meanwhile, KNCC also boasts a connection with Lee Hae-chan.
During a meeting with us, Reverend Kim Tae-Hyon, Executive
Secretary of KNCC, said that Lee Hae-chan has been KNCC's old

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contact and was coming to KNCC to pay a personal visit to the
head of KNCC after our meeting. The visit, however, was not
publicized. Han Myung-suk, the former Prime Minister, is a
devout Protestant who was imprisoned for her participation in
the democratization movement in 1979 during her tenure as the
Secretary of the Korean Christian Academy.

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14. (U) So far, Chung Dong-young is the only Catholic
presidential hopeful. However, he does not garner any special
support from his fellow Catholics, according to Father Bae
Young-ho, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops'
Conference of Korea (CBCK). Father Bae remarked that
Catholics have experienced too much disappointment with
Catholic politicians -- such as former President Kim
Dae-jung, President Roh and Lee Hoi-chang, the GNP
presidential candidate in 1997 and 2002 -- to expect the new
candidates to be any different.

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COMMENT
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15. (SBU) Koreans tend to be affable toward religion, and
different religious communities have coexisted without
serious conflicts. Protestants have the most missionary zeal
and, therefore, it is not surprising that their numbers have
increased at the fastest rate. Also not surprising is their
penchant for political activism. This is true for both
conservative and liberal Protestants. Surveys show that a
surprisingly high percentage of Protestants have voted for a
candidate on the basis of their beliefs and increasingly
support churches' participation in politics. This is one
factor behind former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak's high
popularity.

16. (U) This report was drafted by Embassy intern Clara Suong.

STANTON

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