03/25/2019, 16.12
KOREA
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Pyongyang’s decision to send officials back to the inter-Korean liaison office is “a sign of hope”, missionary says

Three days ago, Pyongyang pulled its staff without explanations. Four or five North Korean officials came back to Kaesong this morning. For Fr Hammond, Maryknoll superior in Korea, "As in any relationship, trust is needed". Next month, he will lead a humanitarian mission to the North together with five other priests to help 2,000 TB patients.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – North Korea today sent some officials back to the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong (picture 1), after pulling them three days ago. The office, which opened last year, serves as a permanent channel for communication between the two Koreas.

Citing sources in South Korea’s Unification Ministry, South Korean media reported that four or five North Korean officials returned to the office this morning to take part in a meeting with their Southern counterparts.

Despite the goodwill gesture, the Ministry remains cautious because it is not yet clear if the office is back to normal. The number of North Korean officials sent to Kaesong is only half of the ordinary level.

Three days ago, Pyongyang pulled out its personnel without explanations, merely saying that the decision was based on orders “from the top”. For experts and analysts, by pulling its officials North Korea sent a signal to South Korea to do more to persuade the United States to lower its demands in the negotiations currently stalled on denuclearisation.

The return of North Korean liaison staff follows the announcement two days ago by US President Donald Trump that the US would not impose new sanctions on Pyongyang. According to observers, the move shows that Washington still intends to pursue dialogue with Pyongyang.

The return of North Korean officials to Kaesong "is a sign of hope” for Fr Gerard Hammond (picture 2), regional superior of the Maryknoll Missionaries (MM) in Korea. The 85-year-old priest is a member of the Eugene Bell Foundation (EBF), a Christian NGO that has been providing care and support for tuberculosis patients in North Korea for years.

"The city is the place chosen to hold permanent talks and plan humanitarian activities for the North,” the clergyman told AsiaNews. “I've been there several times. It's an ideal place to work for peace on the peninsula.”

Fr Hammond said he was "deeply disappointed" by the failure of the Kim-Trump summit. "I was hoping the meeting would bring something new to the negotiations, even a small step forward. Talks are necessary, even if they are not perfect.”

For him, “Peace in the peninsula and the reconciliation of the two Koreas are issues on which all can all agree: North, South and important supporters of the process, including the Holy See. At this particular moment, I urge everyone to pray," the missionary said.

A few days ago, Fr Hammond received news he had been waiting for months. "On 29 March, I will go to the US embassy in Seoul, which will issue me a second US passport. This will allow me to take part in the next humanitarian expedition to North Korea, which will begin on 22 April and last three weeks.

In addition to me and a young confrère, four other priests will take part: a French missionary of the Society for Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), an Italian Oblate priest (OMI) and two Mexican Missionaries of Guadalupe (MG).

We will help about 2,000 people suffering from multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), in 12 centres in four northern provinces: North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae. Travel will be difficult due to a lack of infrastructure. Neither Washington nor Seoul are involved in this initiative."

"Denuclearisation and sanctions are the last obstacles to overcome for the three states; we must proceed step by step,” explained the missionary.

"Personally, I doubt Pyongyang is willing to give up all its weapons, but I am not a political expert. Trust is needed in every relationship. In this sense, our visit to North Korea can help. As the Holy Father says, we are called to go where there are those who suffer and need help."

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