Seoul (AsiaNews) – The Pope has sent a letter to North Korean Catholics that will be taken to Pyongyang by an international delegation of Caritas on 27 March. The delegation will be led by Mgr Lazzaro You Heung-sik, bishop of Daejou and president of the Korean Caritas. It is the first time that a bishop has received official permission to go to the capital in the north.
Fr Gerald Hammond, regional superior of the Maryknoll missionaries told AsiaNews about the forthcoming visit after returning yesterday from Kaesong, a North Korean industrial complex which hosts economic cooperation projects undertaken with the southern part of the peninsula.
The missionary said the letter of the Holy See “is a reply to a Christmas card sent to Benedict XVI by the NKCA (National Korean Catholic Association) shortly after last Christmas. This is a step head, a positive sign towards normalization of ties between the Church and the regime.”
During his last visit, Fr Hammond – who has been in South Korea for 47 years and is one of the few westerners allowed to take humanitarian aid to the North Korean population – managed to “wrest” permission from the Stalinist government to take the delegation to Pyongyang for the visit, which will end on 31 March.
Further, the delegation – composed of Mgr You and members of the Korean, Spanish, Japanese and American Caritas – will be able to visit a hospital on the eastern coast of the country to deliver food and health aid.
During the last meeting with their North Korean counterparts, Caritas delegates found the atmosphere to be “decisively positive: the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament that came to a close in Beijing represent a victory for all of us, especially for the North Korean population that desperately needs help.”
The nuclear test conducted on 9 October led to the withdrawal of all international aid projects. Only Caritas, after a meeting in Rome, decided to continue its humanitarian work. Now, the priest said, “operations by nations will start again and will be of great help to those who suffer.”
Moves by North Korea towards a thaw in relations “should be taken very seriously because they are the very first ones in the history of bilateral ties. All the same, our optimism should be aware that it is easy to make two steps forward and one step back in this matter.”
But “things are going well for the moment. We have invited three representatives of the North Korean government for a meeting of Caritas Internationalis that will be held in Freiburg in April. They have not replied as yet but the signals are positive.”
However doubts remain about the Catholics’ Association and the effective presence of baptized people in the country, which has been pressing ahead with a ruthless anti-religious campaign for more than 60 years. The president of the NKCA is Samuel Chang Jae-un and the deputy president is Paul Kang Jin-young.
In the buildings of the rectory and headquarters of the “Catholic Association”, there are no religious symbols, just big photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il, with political slogans.
In 1987, a church was built for Catholics but mass is not celebrated regularly and no priests are at work there. For many, this is somewhat “smoke and mirrors” for tourists who manage to enter North Korea. So delegates going to deliver aid to the population avoid participating or concelebrating in functions.
Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, Archbishop of Seoul and Pyongyang's apostolic administrator, had told AsiaNews: “Before the country was divided, there were 52 parishes in the North and some 50,000 believers compared to 100,000 in the South. After 1949, the year in which Mgr Hong Yong-ho and every priest were imprisoned or forced to flee, no priest was left alive in the North. We are unable to say what happened to the faithful and if there are any left.” According to Vatican sources, however, there are about 800 believers.