Atheist Park may have advantages
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Rep. Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party presidential candidate, sought to curry favor with religious leaders during courtesy calls on the heads of Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic church groups Monday.
Ven. Jaseung of the Jogye Order was one of the leaders Rep. Park met during her “tour.”
This stirred speculation on whether she will get along with Buddhists or not, as her ruling party predecessors had a hard time maintaining a good working relationship with them.
Some analysts predict that unlike her predecessors, the leading candidate may be able to avoid clashes with Buddhists because of her background.
Although she received a baptismal name while she attended Sogang University in Seoul several decades ago, her aides said she does not attend Sunday services.
They said the daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee has a strong bond with Buddhists due to the influence of her late mother, Yook Young-soo, who was a pious Buddhist. The aides added that she is also close to several prominent Protestants.
Because of this background, some analysts say Park is de facto affiliated with the three key religions and this would help her relationship with Buddhists during her presidential campaigns.
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.
Incumbent President Lee Myung-bak, former President Kim Young-sam and Lee Hoi-chang, who ran unsuccessfully in presidential elections on the Grand National Party (now the Saenuri Party) ticket twice in 1997 and 2002, had difficulty in handling a backlash from Buddhists.
They alleged that the two Protestant Presidents chose Cabinet ministers based on religion, saying those who attended Protestant churches were favored in reshuffles. Both Lee and Kim denied the allegation, saying nominations for key government posts were made based on merit.
In a Korea Institute for Religious Freedom survey in 2007, former President Kim was depicted as the most biased leader.
Lee Hoi-chang, who attended a Catholic church, also faced criticism from Buddhists during the presidential campaigns.
In September 1997, Lee drew the ire of Buddhists for his remarks that the rule of holding state exams on Sunday made it difficult for Protestant or Catholic applicants to take the test as they had to miss their Sunday worship. He vowed to reconsider the policy, if elected president.
Buddhists said changing the state-exam rule to favor Christians was discrimination against people having different religions such as Buddhists, urging Lee to offer an apology for his remarks.
Unlike them, the late former President Kim Dae-jung had no major problems with Buddhists during the presidential campaign as well as in office.
Some alleged the late Kim’s family’s unique religious background could have helped him avoid any major clashes during his political career.
Kim was a Protestant, his wife Lee Hee-ho attended a Catholic church, while his eldest son is a Buddhist.