TOKYO -- The number of South Koreans infected by the novel coronavirus was announced to have hit 1,595 by Thursday morning, marking a rapid increase after passing the 1,000 mark on Wednesday, and with hundreds of the cases linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus religious group.
Infections in the country have multiplied more than 40 times in the past 10 days, despite the government's heightened alert status. The death toll is 12.
About 40,000 virus tests had been conducted in South Korea as of Tuesday. Previously, government measures to block the spread of the disease were believed to be effective, but over 100 new infections have been reported every day since Feb. 20.
South Korea's first case of the COVID-19 infection was found at a Shincheonji Church of Jesus premises in the southeastern city of Daegu. Infections reportedly then spread among church members who had spent long periods of time together in closed rooms.
According to local media reports, one member who had symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 refused to undergo tests recommended by a physician at a hospital, and left the premises. The individual then moved around the city, attending a social meal and a service, meanwhile spreading the disease to others.
Shincheonji, established in 1984, has branches across South Korea and an estimated following of more than 200,000. Established Christian groups such as Protestants and Roman Catholics regard the church as heretical. It is sometimes described as the most-feared religious group in South Korea for its members' tendency to convert believers from other groups.
The group reportedly built a church in China's Wuhan last year. Some in South Korea allege its members who traveled back and forth between the two countries were infected in China and then spread the disease. Shincheonji has reportedly denied the claim.
Christianity is the biggest religion in South Korea, where followers are said to make up about 30% of the country's population. Approximately 20% identify as Protestants, and 10% as Catholics.
Christianity took hold with the general public, especially those who migrated from rural areas to metropolitan areas such as Seoul, after the country entered a high economic growth period in the 1960s following the end of the Korean War, in which U.N. forces were deployed.
South Korean Christians are largely devout and go to church on Sundays.
The number of infections linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus alone exceeded 500 as of Feb. 25, accounting for about 60% of the then total coronavirus cases.
The church has agreed to a request by the South Korean government to submit a list of several hundred followers who attended the same church services as infected people and whose whereabouts are unknown.
But media reports have suggested that followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus usually hide their religious beliefs. Furthermore, the religious group is believed to be making it difficult for its followers to be identified by telling them to attend churches across the country, rather than in Daegu.
The mass infection of followers of the church has also spread to Busan, Gwangju, and the Seoul metropolitan area.
The South Korean government has designated Daegu and Cheongdo County in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, which have both seen coronavirus spread quickly, as "special management zones" subject to extra infection-prevention measures.
Cheongdo is home to a hospital where the funeral for the leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus' elder brother, who died in January, was held. There are rumors about the possibility of a mass infection among hospital staff and patients due to church followers' attendance at the funeral.
The South Korean government has raised its infectious disease-related alert level to "serious," the highest of four levels, and is stepping up measures to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
The administration of President Moon Jae-in is also concerned about South Korea's relations with China, due to domestic conservative forces critical of the Moon administration calling for a complete ban on foreign nationals entering South Korea via China.
By nationality and region, Chinese nationals form the biggest group of foreign nationals residing in South Korea. China is also South Korea's biggest trading partner. For that and other reasons, South Korea's dependence on China is overwhelmingly high, and links between the two countries are stronger than those between Japan and China.
That closeness is a factor lying behind the South Korean government feeling it has no choice but to give a certain degree of consideration to China while taking tough measures at home to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.