Pyongyang (AsiaNews) - Where did the bishops of North Korea go? The bishops of the last, true Stalinist regime in the world seem to have disappeared into thin air: the Vatican says they are "missing", but they are still listed as the pastors of their dioceses in the Pontifical Yearbook. For the regime of the North they are "perfect strangers" and since the Eighties no official will respond to those who seek information about them.
According to the Catholic geography, North Korea is divided into three dioceses - Pyongyang Hamhung and Chunchon - and a territorial abbey that of Tomwok directly subject to the Holy See. After the end of the civil war in Korea (which was de facto in 1953, but never expressly recognized by the two governments) and the resulting division of the peninsula in two, the Vatican gave over Apostolic administration of the diocese to bishops of the South.
Under the Pontifical Yearbook - the mighty Volume printed in the Vatican, which represents a sort of map of Catholic presence in the world - the bishops are still the same. Under "Pyongyang", we read Mgr. Francis Hong Yong-ho, born in 1906 and now "missing" for Hamhung we find an empty space, Chunchon, however, has a territory that "borders" in the North. Here, then, the entitled bishop is Mgr. John Chang-yik (but the post “is vacant” according to local Catholics).
The situation of the bishops is a true reflection of the situation of the Church of North Korea. In the middle of last century 30% of the inhabitants of the capital Pyongyang were Catholics, compared to 1% of the rest of the country. During the Korean War (1950-1953) Communist troops penetrated the South and hunted missionaries, foreign religious, and Korean Christians. The North Korean regime intended to destroy every Christian presence. In the north all the monasteries and churches were destroyed, monks and priests were arrested and sentenced to death.
During the war, the apostolic delegate to Korea, Patrick James Byrne. Bishop and U.S. citizen was arrested, was sentenced to death but the sentence was not executed. He was deported to a concentration camp and died there, after years of hardship and deprivation. There has been no news of what happened to the Christians in the following years: we still do not know the fate of the 166 priests and religious who remained in the North after the war. When questioned about them, North Korean officials respond: "They are perfect strangers."
Today the Church in the North is without clergy and without worship. According to official government figures, there are about 4,000 Catholic North Koreans, in addition to some 11,000 Protestants. But AsiaNews sources in the country claim that the "real" Catholics number no more than two hundred, mostly very elderly. Throughout the North there are only three places of worship approved for the Christian faith: two Protestant Churches and one Catholic Churc. This is the church of Changchung (pictured) in the capital Pyongyang, which for many analysts is only for "show" and controlled by the regime.
The Christian community is subjected to harsh repression by the authorities. A Christian is doubly unpopular: accused of disloyalty to the regime and suspected of ties with the West. The majority of the faithful have been forced to express their faith in secret. In a communist country, being "discovered" while attending a mass in an unauthorized location may result in imprisonment and, at worst, torture and even capital punishment. Even the mere fact of possessing a Bible is a crime that can carry the death penalty. On 16 June 2009, a 33 year old Christian, Ri Hyon-ok, was sentenced to death and executed "for putting Bibles into circulation."
The figure of Mgr. Hong Yong-ho is emblematic of this situation. Ordained May 25, 1933, he was appointed vicar apostolic of Pyongyang and titular bishop of Auzia March 24, 1944 by Pope Pius XII. The following June 29, he was consecrated by Archbishop Bonifatius Sauer, co-consecrating Bishop Hayasaka Irenæus, Archbishop Paul Marie Kinama-ro.
On March 10, 1962 Pope John XXIII decided to elevate the vicariate of Pyongyang to diocese, also in protest against the policies of the North Korean regime, and appointed as its first bishop, Mgr. Hong, who has becomes a symbol of persecution against Catholics in North Korea and in general in the communist regimes. Although he is now well over one hundred, in the Vatican they say it "can not be excluded that he may still be a prisoner in some re-education camp".