By Ju-min Park
GAPYEONG, South Korea (Reuters) – When the elderly leader of a South Korean religious sect knelt before the nation on Monday, he had hoped to defuse public anger over his church’s role in spreading the coronavirus.
Yet Lee Man-hee’s apology for the national “calamity” instead whipped up more outrage – due to a watch he was wearing.
The gold-colored watch, visible on his left wrist, was apparently given by disgraced former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and jailed in 2017 for corruption and abuse of power.
Images of the watch quickly trended on Twitter, while “Lee Man-hee watch” was the most searched phrase on South Korea’s biggest search portal Naver.
“He is bragging about Park’s gift,” fumed one Twitter user.
“His watch was shiny and crystal clear, like his loyalty and ties with Park Geun-hye,” jibed another.
There was no comment on the controversy from Lee. But a leader at his Shincheonji Church of Jesus said there was nothing untoward about the watch, which was given as a merit award.
“It has nothing to do with politics,” the official told Reuters, noting that Lee, in his late 80s, was a veteran of the Korean War. “He wears it because he doesn’t have anything else.”
Lee, a self-proclaimed messiah, has been widely criticized for failing to do enough to stop the coronavirus after one of its members tested positive and infected many others.
South Korea has 4,335 cases and has seen 26 deaths.
“We did our best but were not able to stop the spread of the virus,” Lee told a news conference, asking for forgiveness and bowing low twice in a sign of humility and regret.
The watch Lee wore did not appear an especially valuable one: similar models were being traded for 120,000-500,000 won ($100-$420) secondhand online.
In images from the news conference, the watch seems to have the presidential phoenix insignia and Park’s signature inscribed
But Lee Gun-yong, a former aide in Park’s presidential office and now a leader in the opposition United Future Party, said on Facebook that Lee’s watch must have been fake, as Park’s office only made silver ones.
United Future Party, a conservative political movement formerly headed by Park, denied Lee and the party had any political connections.
(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Jack Kim and Andrew Cawthorne)