The Re-Emergence of Coercive Conversion: The Right to (No) Religious Freedom

Following the year anniversary of the death of Ji-In Gu, the conversation surrounding coercive conversion taking place in South Korea has brought a new wave of outrage to the human rights violations of the Christian Council of Korea (CCK). Gu was murdered by her parents after protesting against the ‘cult like’ methods of the CCK in 2018, whilst the conversion programmes continue with little legal opposition. 

Coercive conversion is by no means a new problem, nor only confined to Korea. According to the Office of Social Justice, nearly five million Syrians have fled religious persecution from ISIS, whilst the muslims of Myanmar have been stripped of all citizen rights and forced into camps for not adhering to Buddhism as the majority religion. However, Korea is an anomaly due to its status as a highly respected democratic and constitutional state. Yet despite this, Korean authorities continue to dismiss it as an issue consistent with family matters, rather than matters appropriate for governmental action.

Coercive conversion, according to the End Coercive Conversion organisation, means to force someone to change their original religion to another against their will, with techniques including kidnapping and assault. Within Korea, this is encouraged by the CCK, a protestant organisation adopting cult-like ways of gaining members. With a $10,000 ‘thankful offering’ to cover the expenses of the conversion, and the targeting of whole families, the CCK can claim that it is all a voluntary process instigated by the families themselves and thus avoid legal prosecution.

The dark reality of the situation contrasts unimaginably to this perception. “Conversion education agreements” are written by force whilst those they are converting are kept in confinement. This conversion education is an essentially a process of radicalisation which had ended in the death of both Ji-In Gu, as well as the death of another woman in 2007, who’s ex husband murdered her with a hammer after she refused to convert. It encourages families to abduct other relatives so to confine them within their facilities until conversion is complete. Gu was abducted for 44 days in 2016 before escaping and lobbying for an end to coercive conversion directly through appealing to the Korean president using a widely signed petition. Yet her efforts were fruitless with her second abduction occurring in December 2017, causing her death in January 2018 through suffocation carried out by her parents.

Many human rights organisations and advocates have vowed for Gu’s legacy to be fulfilled, with marches taking place to mark the one year anniversary of her death globally, including in South Africa, America, the UK and 12 other countries around the world.  Yet, South Korea has still not taken any steps to ensure the end to this blatant violation of the “right to religious freedom” within their constitution. It is on the shoulders of the international community to recognise its social responsibility to pressure policy change and uphold universally valued human rights. 

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Catherine is an undergraduate student studying Political Science With Sociology at the University of Birmingham. She specialises in Middle Eastern conflicts and has an avid interest in international relations, development economics, as well as minority empowerment in the UK. Catherine is also a keen reader, podcast-listener and believer in God. In addition to politics, she is also a huge food lover, especially in terms of her sweet tooth.

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