The division of the Korean Peninsula has outlasted the Cold War, numerous political leaders and repeated attempts at rapprochement. But as the 70th anniversary of division approaches next year, a group of Catholic clergy in South Korea is seeking engagement with the controversial state-sanctioned Church in North Korea in the hope of overcoming decades of separation and confrontation between the countries.
The Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People is working to hold a conference with the Pyongyang-approved Joseon Catholic Association next year to mark the anniversary and pray for peace, in the latest effort by South Korean Catholics to bridge the sides.
“The intention of the God we trust in is telling us to overcome division and conflict, and achieve reconciliation and concord,” Fr Lee Eun-hyung, the secretary-general of the organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, told ucanews.com. “It is saying let’s meet and pray together to overcome the current danger and crisis. The goal of this event is to say let’s gather our minds in prayer for peace.”
Lee said representatives from both sides agreed in principle to a faith conference during a meeting in Beijing last month but said an exact date and venue has yet to be set.
The group would need the approval of the governments of both Koreas for any event to go ahead.
The Catholic Church has often been associated with liberal activism in South Korea, a key focus of which is engagement with North Korea. In May, Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung, the archbishop of Seoul, visited an industrial park in North Korea jointly run by both governments. The South Korean hierarchy also invited its neighbor to send worshippers to events related to Pope Francis’ visit in August, though Pyongyang declined the offer.
Cooperation with North Korea, however, remains especially politically sensitive in a country that remains technically at war with its neighbor. South Korea’s sweeping National Security Law makes praise of the Kim Jong-un regime a crime and prohibits contact between the sides without prior government permission.
“The biggest challenge is the political situation between South and North Korea. I hope political influence does not influence religious or private exchanges, but if you look at the process up until now, it doesn’t look like it will be easy,” said Lee.
Also fraught is the very nature of the so-called Church north of the border. North Korea is ranked the least free country for practicing Christianity by Open Doors, an American NGO that tracks religious persecution worldwide. Extensive defector testimony has documented the imprisonment and execution of Christians for practicing their faith.
The fate of the Church could hardly have diverged more widely on the other side of the border: The Church in South Korea managed to almost triple its congregation between 1985 and 2005, defying the decline seen in other developed countries.
“They [the Kim regime] see it as a major challenge, a challenge coming from a completely different philosophical viewpoint, on the one hand, but also pretending to be a universal explanation of everything, like juche,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and longtime North Korea watcher, referring to the state ideology of self-reliance.
A state-approved Church has existed in the capital Pyongyang since 1988, but defectors and human rights groups consider it a sham set up to fool outside visitors.
Andrei said that while genuine believers may exist within it, the North Korean Catholic leadership is largely comprised of members of the State Security Department, the regime’s secret police.
But he added that it is possible they could be influenced to question the regime through meetings with outsiders.
“They are human beings, they have brains,” said Lankov. “If you look, say… at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you will be surprised how many of the subversive ideas got to the Soviet Union through the KGB, the Foreign Ministry, through all these carefully selected people.”
Lee himself acknowledged that there are no legitimate priests in the country, but expressed hope of reaching North Koreans with a Catholic background.
“There are no priests but there are people who have been baptized. There are people who were baptized before the division, and there are also people involved in the religious exchange process who have been baptized,” he said.
Asked about the possible presence of government agents among purported Catholic representatives, Lee said it was hard to comment on an “internal problem”.
“There are many disappointing things to me about the religious conditions in North Korea, but I think it is fortunate that there is a representative group with whom to push for a meeting.”
Lee was adamant that their modest proposal could eventually grow into something much bigger for the benefit of all.
“Although it is now just a small and simple meeting, I believe these efforts for a meeting will bear large fruit one day through the Lord.”