The remarks came upon his return from the Gaeseong industrial complex, aimed at raising the spirits of Catholics and other workers there despite persistent cross-border tension.
“The Gaeseong district is about 60 kilometers away from the Seoul Archdiocese, but I realized that we live in a world where the short distance feels very long,” Yeom told reporters at the Dorasan Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.
|Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung|
“Today at the Gaeseong complex, where the two Koreas live in union, I saw a sign of hope that we can overcome the agony and sadness of the division if we make such efforts through dialogue and sincerity.”
The one-day trip, the first ever by a South Korean Catholic cardinal to the North, came about at the request of a Catholic group in Gaeseong last year. Yeom initially planned to travel to the border city last winter for Christmas.
The new cardinal also serves as the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang.
During its nine-hour stay, his eight-member delegation was briefed on the operation of the Gaeseong industrial complex, toured facilities and met and prayed with believers there. But they did not meet with any North Korean officials, said Hur Young-yub, a spokesperson for the Seoul Archdiocese.
Tension remains high as Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to carry out a fourth nuclear test and continues to churn out astringent criticism of the Park Geun-hye administration.
Yeom’s landmark tour ignited speculation that Pope Francis may stop at the communist state when he comes to Seoul in August. During his five-day stay, the pontiff plans to take part in a Catholic youth festival and to beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
But Hur dismissed the rumor, saying the event had “nothing to do with the papal visit” and that the trip was intended to encourage and console the workers.
The Seoul Archbishop was incardinated in February along with 18 others, becoming the third Korean to reach the second-highest post in the Catholic Church.
Pyongyang was once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its flourishing Christianity, despite the regime’s unrelenting religious oppression.
Some reports estimated that about 200,000 Protestants and 57,000 Catholics existed across the northern part of the peninsula in the 1940s. A South Korean priest claimed last year that some 10,000 Catholics lived in the North.
Although the North Korean constitution calls for religious freedom, in practice the Kim Jong-un regime continues to clamp down and impose harsh penalties on people who are engaged in proselytizing or in contact with foreigners or missionaries, according to defectors and activists.
The U.S. Department of State has picked North Korea as a “country of particular concern” since 2001 in its annual International Religious Freedom Report.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)