South Korea monks warn police against raiding Buddhist temple in search of wanted activist

Activist Han Sang Gyun sought sanctuary in the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul following a massive anti-government demonstration on Nov 14.
Activist Han Sang Gyun sought sanctuary in the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul following a massive anti-government demonstration on Nov 14. PHOTO: EPA
South Korean police standing guard outside the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul on Dec 9, 2015.
South Korean police standing guard outside the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul on Dec 9, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A stand-off over a wanted labour activist holed up in Seoul's top Buddhist temple intensified on Wednesday (Dec 9), with monks warning that a threatened police raid would be an act of religious persecution.

Mr Han Sang Gyun, the head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, sought sanctuary in the Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul following a massive anti-government demonstration on Nov 14.

Police have issued an arrest warrant for Mr Han, accusing him of inciting violence during the protest that saw numerous clashes between protesters and security forces.

At Mr Han's request, the Jogye Order - South Korea's leading Buddhist organisation - has been mediating with the government ever since he took refuge.

But with no resolution in sight, the country's top police officer Kang Sin Myeong issued a 24-hour ultimatum, threatening to raid the temple unless Mr Han voluntarily turned himself in by 4pm local on Wednesday.

The Jogye Order, which is the largest Buddhist sect in South Korea with millions of followers, said any such move would be unacceptable.

"If the police raid the temple, it... will be tantamount to a state clampdown on the Jogye Order and on the whole Buddhist movement in South Korea," the organisation said in a statement.

"If the police enter the temple... they will be wholly responsible for the consequences of such action," it said, without elaborating.

Hundreds of police were stationed outside the temple ahead of the afternoon deadline.

South Korean religious venues have a long history of providing refuge for political activists, most notably in the 1980s when many young pro-democracy activists who were on the run from police sought sanctuary in Catholic churches.

Although there is no legal reason preventing police entering such venues, they have traditionally opted not to do so for fear of triggering a public backlash.

The last time police raided the Jogye Temple - to bring out seven labour activists in 2002 - the move sparked widespread criticism.