For the first time Pyongyang opens to a Catholic delegation in the fight against TB
by Joseph Yun Li-sun
For the first time ever the regime has permitted a predominantly Catholic delegation to visit the hospitals where people are cured of tuberculosis. Eight of these structures are supported by the Church, while programmes are being planned to extend this collaboration to Research Centres to stop the spread of the disease. Currently, 10% of the population has TB.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – For the first time since taking power, the North Korean Communist government has allowed a Catholic delegation to visit paediatric hospitals which cure tuberculosis interact with doctors and patients.


Fr. Gerald Hammond one of the 5 members of the delegation confirmed the event to AsiaNews: “We have been in North Korea since May 12th, bringing medical aid. We have visited Pyongyang, Nampo, and the south eastern province of Pyengan. I am thoroughly convinced that permission for this visit was a gift from God”.


 The priest, superior of the Maryknoll in Korea, continues: “ The health ministry allowed us to visit 17 state paediatric hospitals, dedicated to TB care.  Currently eight of these structures are materially supported by the Catholic Church”. In fact, despite the religious oppression operated by the Pyongyang regime, these hospitals “receive and use our medicines: on the boxes are catholic symbols and the name of the institutions that sent them in English and Korean”.


Beyond the representatives from Maryknoll, who work in close collaboration with Caritas Korea well known in the North, there were also representatives of Catholic Relief Service, Superiors from the Korean religious institutes and from the Eugene Bell Foundation.


The regimes about face, which allowed for the visit to take place, despite the fact that it was known that priest were among the delegation, and has two motivations: “On the one hand there is a real opening on the part of the government towards foreigners, even Catholics.  On the other there is growing concern regarding the sharp increase in TB cases among the North Korean population, which at the moment effects more than 10%”. Of these over 30% are “vaccine resistant: only with correct care and modern therapies submitted over a long period of time can we hope to save lives”.


This is why the Minster for Healthcare discussed greater the possibility of continued collaboration with the delegation: “We spoke of the possibility of opening a TB study and research centre in Pyongyang: this would be run and managed by both Koreas, and funded by the Church”.


For the people, state hospitals are the only available source of health care: these “have trained professionals and have the necessary infrastructure, but lack equipment and medicines: our commitment is to update local doctor’s medical knowledge and guarantee patient survival”.


This commitment concludes Fr. Hammond, “is part of what I term as the ‘apostolate of being present’.  Even if there is no religious freedom in North Korea it is vital that we become credible and accepted partners in dialogue for the good of the people.  Our commitment is a tangible sign of the Pope’s care for Korea, and of the aim to make sure the people of Korea who are one of the world’s most suffering populations, do not feel abandoned”.