|Rev. Lee Hong-jeong speaks during a news conference at National Council of Churches in Seoul on Thursday. Yonhap|
NCCK leader draws the ire of progressive church members for his remarks justifying the late president
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Rev. Lee Hong-jeong, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), apologized on Thursday to the victims killed during the May 18 Uprising and their families for his participation and remarks during the state funeral of the late President Roh Tae-woo.
He said his attendance at the state funeral of the military general-turned-president was a grave mistake.
"I initially planned to deliver a meaningful message to society at the funeral by taking advantage of the opportunity that was given to me," he said during a press conference held at the National Council of Churches in Seoul. "Regardless of my purposes, however, I came to realize that my participation in the funeral itself is self-contradictory and therefore I hereby apologize."
Lee took part in the state funeral of Roh held on Oct. 30 at Olympic Park in southeastern Seoul. He delivered a eulogy for the late president on behalf of Protestant church leaders.
Reading a prepared statement, he said he hoped Roh's family members can bear in mind that Roh felt regrets about Korea's tragic modern history, including the government's violent suppression of the May 18 Uprising in 1980, and encouraged Roh's family members to play a role to realize democracy and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The May 18 Uprising was a pro-democracy protest in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 1980, while the nation was in turmoil following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee on Oct. 26, 1979, and an ensuing military coup starting Dec. 12 of that year, led by Chun Doo-hwan, then a military general. Chun's authoritarian government brutally cracked down on the democracy protesters. Roh, who later took power through a presidential election, was Chun's friend and also a military general who played a role in the coup.
Rev. Lee's eulogy at Roh's funeral backfired after it was made known to the public.
In a joint statement released after the state funeral, the Ecumenical Youth Council in Korea and two other Protestant church groups criticized Rev. Lee for his remarks about the late president's apology regarding the massacre that took the lives of hundreds of Gwangju citizens.
"General Secretary Lee said the late president was rueful about the incident, but what he said was not based on fact," it read.
Their statement went on to say that Roh, after retiring from the presidency, said that May 18 Uprising was nothing compared to China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. "His attitude toward the popular protest has not changed and in his memoir he even tried to justify the government's crackdown on the democracy protests," it read.
Other Protestant church groups joined the attacks on Rev. Lee, saying he was trying to seek reconciliation between the late president and the massacre victims and their families without consent from the latter groups.
In response to their criticism, Rev. Lee said his participation in the funeral and what he said there were all inappropriate.
"My deepest apologies go out to the victims killed in the May 18 Uprising and their families, if my words hurt them," he said.
After being elected general secretary of the progressive NCCK in 2017, Lee has been vocal on human rights issues, such as the proposal of an anti-discrimination bill and the acceptance of LGBTQ people in churches.