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South Korea Retaliates Against Outspoken Catholic Priest with ‘Pro-North’ Accusations

South Korea has launched an investigation into a prominent Catholic priest after he made remarks calling on the country's president to resign over the state spy agency and Defense Ministry's widespread manipulation of online leading up to last year's elections. 

Park Chang-shin, a priest from the Diocese of Jeonju and a member of the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice who has been outspoken in his criticism of the president over the electioneering scandal, is under fire for his comments involving North Korea. During one of his recent homilies (full text [ko]), he said that “it was natural for the North to attack Yeonpyeong island since the United States and South Korea held joint military exercises near its sea border” referring to North Korean attack against that border island in November 2010 which left two civilians and two marines dead.

This has become ammunition for the government to have him invested by prosecutors. South Korea's prime minister labeled Park's remarks as “destructive to the country and supportive of the enemy”, and the Defense Minister chimed in by calling him an “enemy of the state”. It is ironic because in that same homily, Park also said that he is “so sick of the ‘pro-North’ rhetoric that the conservative regimes love to adopt and abuse in order to clamp down on critics after branding them as pro-North Korea sympathizers.”

Since late summer of this year, Catholic leadership in South Korea, spearheaded by the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, has been vocal in condemning the government's systematic interference, regularly holding combinations of Catholic Mass and candlelight vigils in protest. The group has the history [ko] of resisting against President Park's father's dictatorial rule back in the 1970s and also were the ones who unearthed the torture and death of Park Jong-Chul, a milestone that lead to the June Democratic Movement in 1987.

The latest revelations about the electioneering scandal show that more 24.2 million tweets have been written by the spy agency and the Defense Ministry's Cyberwarfare Command to smear opposition candidates and praise current president Park Geun-hye. As more and more protests have sprung up, the president recently said that ‘she would not tolerate any attempts to cause social division and hurt national unity'.  

The Korean web has erupted with anger and concerns over the nation's freedom of expression and democracy in light of the treatment of Father Park. 

Prominent citizen journalist @mediamongu tweeted a photo of a special Mass organized by the CPAJ and celebrated by Father Park on November 22. Approximately 400 priests and Catholics reportedly participated in this protest: 

After the Mass and protest calling for President Park's resignation ended, priests and Catholics members took to the streets, holding candles in their hands and shouting ‘Step down, President!' 

Many net users expressed their fear over the fact that pro-North rhetoric has been used so frequently against progressive groups and critics of the government:   

Park's government is distorting and abusing the Yeonpyeong island remark to brand the CPAJ as ‘pro-North'. If they had not used it this time, they would have found some other excuse to label them as pro-North. Since this [rhetoric] is the only card they can play right now, [that is why they are using this tactic]. Any group criticizing the fraudulent election will be labeled as ‘pro-North'– whether they are Protestant, Won Buddhists, Jogye Order of Korean Buddhist or else. This is just pathetic.

Under the [previous] Lee Myung-bak administration, every voice that was critical of the government was labeled as pro-North. Now the CPAJ is being branded as a pro-North Catholic group. Now it becomes crystal clear: Anyone who says something negative about the government and calls for Park's resignation are all ‘pro-North'.

Gwangju civic society said, “We strongly support CPAJ's Mass and protest. The people have accused the government bodies of colluding together to violate the Constitution and the religious leaders have continued to hold Mass and protests – if the ‘pro-North’ rhetoric is the only answer that the Park government can give to all these calls, they will soon face fiercer and more widespread public resistance.

Net users also lamented the fact that conservative Korean media have blindly sided with the ruling party, and that members of the Catholic Church are being attacked [ko] by conservative groups: 

The logic of ‘separation of church and state’ is made to prevent a collusion between politics and religion, not to restrict ‘individuals’ freedom of expression which is protected by the constitution. You Korean media are so busy watering down the NIS [National Intelligence Service] election manipulation scandal [by making other sensational headlines]. Although you may bark for your master, at least have the courtesy to know what you are barking about. And remember that your master is the people. You will pay for this. 

The ‘pro-North rhetoric’ attacks have bombarded the CPAJ and the media have merely been amplifying the assaults.

Today, right after Park Geun-hye made a threatening comment that she will not let those rebellious citizens go in peace, [note: This is how user understand it, and not the exact words from the President] conservative group, Goyeopje Veteran group, totally trashed Jeonju church. Lets see how Park Geun-hye reacts to the illegal and violent transgression made against a sacred church since she is the one who said will be taking firm measures against illegal, violent protests. 

When the Lee Seok-ki fiasco happened, they [conservative groups] burnt Lee Seok-ki's effigy. Now they brand CPAJ as pro-North and are burning their effigies. Come on, this is quite tired – as if seeing a witch-burning ceremony. This kind of blackmailing that these old guys pull off – there is nothing new in any of this.

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