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North Korean Catholics hold rare meeting with foreign Christians

Highly restricted church is minuscule, but is it genuine?
North Korean Catholics hold rare meeting with foreign Christians

North Korean Catholics look around a church during a visit to Seoul in March 2003. (Photo by AFP)

Published: November 06, 2015 10:03 AM GMT
Updated: November 05, 2015 11:34 PM GMT

For more than 65 years, the Catholic Church in North Korea has been known as the "silent church." Then dictator Kim Il-sung purged and executed leading church figures after the communists took power in the north in 1948, severing ties with the Vatican. Contact between North Korean Catholics and the outside world remains rare.

Following one such meeting last week, a delegation of a dozen Western and South Korean Christians to North Korea confirmed the church remains minuscule. Nonetheless, a few hundred Catholics can worship within the narrow confines imposed by the regime, Peter Prove, director of international affairs at the World Council of Churches, told ucanews.com after flying out of Pyongyang.

"It operates under very different conditions from that which we on the outside might consider ideal. But it is a genuine witnessing community," he said.

The delegation spent a week inside the country on behalf of the Ecumenical Forum for Korea, a group that has built ties with the north and south in the name of peace on the divided peninsula.

Two leading officials of the regime-run Korean Catholic Association told the group during a one-hour meeting in Pyongyang that North Korea had not had an ordained priest for about seven years. Pyongyang's Changchung Cathedral, the only bricks-and-mortar Catholic church known to exist in the country, has been run by laymen in recent years, officials told the delegation.

Catholic priests from South Korea have traveled to Pyongyang to hold Mass in the cathedral. "But in the context of recent tensions, it's been very difficult — in fact impossible — to receive such visits," Prove said he was told.

North and South Korea held marathon talks in the demilitarized zone to defuse military tensions in August. Since then, a new period of rapprochement has seen separated families visit across the demilitarized zone for the first time in years.

Officials told last week's Christian delegation that about 200 North Koreans worship in Changchung Cathedral every Sunday.

"As far as I'm aware, that church building is the only building for the Roman Catholic community in North Korea so that would indicate the concentration of the Roman Catholic community in Pyongyang," said Prove.

The Korean Catholic Association has previously claimed 3,000 Catholics exist in North Korea, while the United Nations has estimated just 800. North Korea is home to fewer Catholics than almost any country in the world. Diocesan statistics suggest only Muslim-majority Afghanistan, the Maldives, Somalia and Turkmenistan have smaller numbers of practicing Catholics.

In 1949, Kim Il-sung's government purged and executed leading Christian figures in North Korea including Francis Hong Yong-ho. After his disappearance, Francis was named bishop of Pyongyang until his death was finally acknowledged by the Holy See in 2013, although nothing is known of his demise.


A living church?

Of the few hundred Catholics believed to remain in North Korea today, most are thought to be survivors from the pre-Communist era. Debate continues over whether they are genuine believers or actors working in the name of the state.

One member of the visiting delegation last week lived in Pyongyang more than 15 years ago as an aid worker when he would go to the Catholic cathedral unannounced and find people worshipping there, said Prove.

"So he was under no doubt that this was a legitimate and genuine community," he added.

This view tallies with that of Father John Park, a South Korean priest, who told CNN last year he had celebrated Mass as a guest of the Changchung Cathedral since 2000. Park was not available for comment.

The Seoul Archdiocese, which acts as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pyongyang, believes Catholic activity in North Korea represents little more than a show for foreigners amid criticism over religious persecution, said spokesman Stephany Sun.

"There is no real faithful, so we don't call that a 'church,'" she added.

Last May, Seoul Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung visited Kaesong, an industrial park jointly run by the two Koreas north of the demilitarized zone, in the first visit by a cardinal to North Korea. But he was not able to meet any Catholics and has never been able to go to Pyongyang.

Speculation suggested the cardinal's trip was preparation for Pope Francis to go to the north as part of his landmark trip to South Korea in August 2014. However, the pontiff was unable to make any contact with the north. The government even refused an invitation to send Catholics to a reunification Mass in Seoul Cathedral.

Every move on religion made by the North Korean government is based on tactical efforts to generate diplomatic leverage with the outside world, said Jang Jin-sung, a former propagandist for the government.

As a state official until he defected to South Korea in 2005, Jang worked for the United Front Department, an intelligence office that staged religious activity in North Korea a bid to appease the outside world, he said.

Jang became a favorite of deceased dictator Kim Jong-il when he wrote the well-known North Korean poem, "Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord" — a rhyme not about God but the "Dear Leader."

"The Catholic 'Church' is operated by the United Front Department as one of several 'front companies,' and its 'worshipers' are UFD intelligence officers assigned to offensive counterintelligence," Jang told ucanews.com.

United Front Department operatives study Christian terminology in Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, and then set up Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist operations in the interests of the state, he added.

"[It's] in order to build human networks for mounting offensive counterintelligence messaging and operations via sympathetic foreign civilians," said Jang.

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