South Korea's Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung paid a landmark visit to North Korea on Wednesday to meet with South Korean Catholics working at a joint inter-Korean factory park, officials said.
The one-day trip to the North's western border city of Kaesong comes as tensions persist over North Korea's possible nuclear test and its recent verbal tit-for-tat with rival South Korea.
It marked the first time that a Catholic cardinal has visited North Korea. It also comes less than three months before Pope Francis visits South Korea.
Cardinal Yeom plans to meet South Korean Catholics workers in the factory park and tour facilities before returning home, according to an official of the Archdiocese of Seoul and the unification ministry.
It was not immediately clear whether the archbishop of Seoul, who also acts as the apostolic administrator in Pyongyang, could hold a mass in the complex in the North.
Unification ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin said no political meeting is set for Cardinal Yeom.
Park also said the cardinal is not considering visiting Pyongyang. The cardinal's trip to Kaesong had sparked speculation whether it is meant to lay the groundwork for Pope Francis' possible trip to the North.
The Archdiocese of Seoul dismissed the speculation, according to the unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.
Pope Francis is set to visit South Korea from Aug. 14 to 18 to participate in a Catholic youth festival and to preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs.
Pyongyang was once dubbed "the Jerusalem of the East," for Christianity that flourished in the North. In the mid-1940s, about 200,000 Protestants and 57,000 Catholics lived among the 9.1 million people in what is now North Korea, according to South Korean documents.
North Korea claims it guarantees religious freedom, and it has a Catholic church and two Protestant churches as well as a Russian Orthodox church, but critics say they are for propaganda and open only when foreign visitors attend services.
North Korean defectors in South Korea say North Korea severely cracks down on any religious activity, viewing it as a challenge to leader Kim Jong-un's rule. (Yonhap)
(Photo credit: Yonhap)