After nearly 60 years, mssionary enters North Korea
by Pino Cazzaniga

The story of Fr Hammond who is allowed to cross the 38th parallel twice a year. There are no priests in the country but there is a "Catholics' Association"; there are no religious symbols at its headquarters, only a photo of Kim Jong-il.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – In the nineteenth century, the Korean peninsula was described as a "hermit nation" because of its impenetrability. Alas, the expression still holds for North Korea, especially where the Church is concerned: there are no priests in the country, nor are there any bishops, and missionaries are not allowed in.

With one exception: since 1998, Fr Gerald Hammond, an American priest of the Maryknoll Missionaries has been able to visit villages in a province north of Pyongyang twice a year.

The missionary says these trips to the north are a "return to his roots". In 1923, the Holy See asked the Maryknoll Institute, which had been set up only 12 years before, to send its missionaries to the northern part of the peninsula. When they were forced to leave the territory in 1943, expelled by the Japanese, they left behind 30 Korean priests who they had formed. Every single one proved to be exemplary Christian witness during the brutal Communist oppression. All disappeared in the initial years of the red dictatorship, either shot or imprisoned, including the founder of the mission, Mgr Patrick Byrne.

Since then, no missionaries have been allowed to cross the 38th parallel.

However, at the beginning of the nineties, Dr Stephen Linton, son of a Presbyterian missionary in South Korea accompanied the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, to a trip north, as translator. He managed to obtain permission from the "dear leader" Kim Jong-il, to take a delegation of people to offer care to tuberculosis patients, according to a fixed schedule. Thus, Fr Gerard, who arrived in Korea in the sixties, could realise his desire to meet the people of the north.

Evangelisation of charity

"Your willingness to face this difficult trip twice a year makes continuity of Catholic support possible and helps North Koreans to understand Catholicism better," Linton wrote to the Maryknoll missionary after returning from the latest expedition in May this year. Seventy-three-year-old Fr Gerard avoids talking about himself, saying instead that "these visits north are always full of amazing possibilities". Although the six members of the delegation do not speak directly about Christianity, the religious connotation is never hidden and is met with deference.

Fr Hammond said: "I have ascertained many times that the people of the north are not hostile to the clergy even if one wears a collar. This is no small feat for a country where, for more than 60 years, anti-religious propaganda painted missionaries as scoundrels and criminals". During a break one time, the driver pointed to the rosary beads the priest was holding and said: "My grandmother used to have this object of prayer." The political commissioner was not present at the time.

The ambiguity of Pyongyang's Catholic Association

It has been noted that the government of North Korea has been showing signs of religious tolerance for some time. In reality, what it wants is a Church subservient to the regime.

On the morning of 14 May, the delegation was received at the headquarters of the NKCA, the National Korean Catholic Association, at the request of Fr Hammond, a long time fiduciary of the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Stefano Kim before, and now, Cardinal Nicholas Cheong.

After 38 years of total suppression of the Catholic Church (1950), the authorities in North Korea unexpectedly approached the Holy See (1987) and, consequently, the Catholic Church in South Korea. Since then, channels have never been shut down, although negotiations, for obvious reasons, unfold in a very discreet manner, and abroad.

In 1989, Cardinal Stefano Kim said in a memorandum: "Whatever the reasons of the government of North Korea, the Holy See and the ordinary bishops involved, in full agreement and with constancy, strive to promote and to obtain gradual realization of genuine ecclesial life for all Catholics in the North." The two Korean bishops are the archbishop of Seoul for the province of Pyongyang and the Benedictine abbot, Placido Ri, for the two provinces in the north-east.

The initiative of Fr Gerard should be seen in this context. The delegation was welcomed by the chairman of the community, Francesco Kim Chol-ung (he is not a priest) and by the vice-chairman of the Catholic Association, Paul Kang Jin-young. In 1987, a church for Catholics was set up. In the buildings of the rectory and the headquarters of the "Catholic Association", there are no religious symbols, only large photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il, with political slogans.

Fr Hammond delivered the greetings of the Holy Father and the reassurance of his prayers for the Korean people. Francesco Kim charged him to return these greetings, referring also to the desire to visit the pope expressed on 28 April by a group of Catholics from north and south. All talk about religious matters stopped there. Every time Fr Gerard offered to assist them in contacts with the Catholic hierarchy, they replied in an offhand manner, saying they already had sufficient links with the Church in the south.

Which Church? The discussion ended after only 20 minutes because a Korean priest came from Seoul to start celebrating Sunday Mass. He belongs to an association of priests for Justice and Peace who work without the approval of the Church hierarchy. For this reason, and also because there was no proof that the "Catholics" participating in these liturgies were really baptized, Fr Hammond and Fr Antoine Gastambide MEP did not concelebrate.

Before taking his leave, Fr Gerard asked Paul Kang to put the request of the visit to the Holy Father in writing, or any other message for Cardinal Cheong, so he could deliver it. But no letter reached the hotel where he was staying.

Despite these developments, the missionary is not pessimistic. "The medical assistance we offer is definitely an effective means, perhaps the only one possible today, of showing God's love to the Korean people. These trips are not easy. All the same, one feels the presence of God in the smiles, the friendship, and the kindness displayed to us by government officials, medics, nurses and patients". None of them were party members.

Hammond is optimistic also as regards the country's future, which he reads not in prospects of ties based on strength but on the quality of people. "I find that the North Koreans (like those in the south) are brilliant, energetic and disciplined, and if they have the opportunity, they can compete and even excel in any field. What is missing in north and south is the mutual trust to proceed (in dialogue). Mediation is needed. I pray that the Church can undertake this role."