11/10/2004, 00.00
SOUTH KOREA – NORTH KOREA
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South Korean Buddhist monk travels to the North to rebuild temple

He is the first Buddhist religious man from the South to travel to the North since the Korean War.

Seoul (AsiaNews/UCAN) – For the first time since the Korean War, a South Korean Buddhist monk will travel to North Korea to live in a temple. The Chogye Order, the largest Buddhist denomination in the South, announced a few days ago that Venerable Jejeong will stay at Singyesa, a Buddhist temple on Mount Kumgang that is under renovation, until 2007. The original building was destroyed during the Korean War (1950-53).

Since November 1998, North Korea has allowed South Korean tourists to visit the mountain, a famous tourist destination just north of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula.

Venerable Jejeong said that it is unlikely the North Korean government will allow him to undertake pastoral care for North Korean Buddhists living near the temple. "Although limits on religious activities are obvious, I will deal with tourists from South Korea and other countries by teaching them about the temple and the religious activities there," he said.

Singyesa on Mount Kumgang is the only temple the North Korean government has agreed to rebuild and open.

Last March, the Chogye Order and the Buddhist Federation of North Korea had agreed to restore the temple. Chogye has collected so far 300 million won (US$ 270,000) but the total cost is set at around 9 billion won (about US$ 8 million).

In September, after a religious ceremony to mark the occasion, reconstruction began. The task is great because the monastery was utterly destroyed during the Korean War and reconstruction work has to begin "from the ground up".

Venerable Jejeong expressed hope that his "efforts will promote more dialogue and economic and cultural exchanges between the two Koreas".

There is no real religious freedom in North Korea. Every religious denomination is persecuted by the communist regime. The only cult admitted is that of 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-II and his late father Kim Il-Sung. According to Open Doors, a Christian human rights organisation, North Korea heads the World Watch List of worst offenders and has been on number one for a couple of years now. Buddhists represent 10 per cent of the country's 23 million people. (LF)

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