Back in South Korea from a visit North, Father Kim told UCA News 4 that North Korea is allowing him to run a newly built welfare centre in Pyongyang that houses a soup kitchen, a free clinic and a public bath, even though “they know I am a Catholic priest.” He will be however on a tourist visit which he will have to renew every two months.
From 29 October to 1 November, a group of 260 South Koreans visited North Korea to celebrate the completion of this first-ever inter-Korean joint venture, Pyongyang Hemp Textile Company, which will produce towels, socks and shrouds.
Even though the countries are still waiting to sign a peace treaty to formally end the civil war that began in 1950, both Koreas put in US$ 30 million each.
During the four-day visit to the North, Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik of Daejeon presided over the opening ceremony of the centre on 30 October.
Father Kim stressed that the welfare centre, located in a three-storey building, is near the plant and will offer medical check-ups, hot meals and haircuts. It will also be able to feed about 1,500 workers a day.
“I can say that the centre will be a turning point in the humanitarian aid to the North,” the priest noted. “We could only send aid materials” in the past, he pointed out, whereas now he can bring aid material to the North and provide direct service.
The company agreed last February to establish the centre after three years of “great efforts” on the part of his Order of Friars Minor, Father Kim explained.
On 1 November Bishop You celebrated a Mass at Changchung Church, the only Catholic church in North Korea, to thank God for opening the centre. About 50 South Korean Catholics including eight priests and four religious took part. No one attended the function from the North where religious practice is still strictly banned, except for the cult of ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il.
The centre does not intend to provide services only to workers but plans to offer real assistance to all nearby residents, said Caritas Corea secretary Father Michael Lee Chang-jun.
Cecilia Lee Seung-jung, North Korea programme manager for Caritas Internationalis, earlier called the agreement on the centre a “significant development” in relations with Pyongyang.
According to Church sources, there are about 3,000 Catholics in North Korea who practice their faith in “home worship places” across the country, with no residing priest or nun.
After North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung came to power, all priests and nuns who remained in the North were executed or disappeared between 1949 and 1950.