Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung visited the North Korean city of Gaeseong on Wednesday to meet Catholic workers in the factories run by South Korean firms there.
It was only a one-day trip and was limited to the factory park in the border city and both church and government officials played down its political significance.
One can suppose that North Korea accepted Yeom’s visit, the first by a South Korean Catholic leader, as part of its propaganda on freedom of religion, which it guarantees in its constitution, but not in reality.
Officials in Pyongyang also might have thought that the cardinal’s visit to the park may press the Seoul government to lift the “May 24 2010 sanctions” imposed after the North’s torpedo attack on a South Korean Navy vessel. The sanctions ban bilateral trade and new investment in the North, which also affect the Gaeseong complex.
Whatever motives the North might have had, Cardinal Yeom’s visit would fall short of helping to bring about any quick breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, which have been tense in recent months over the North’s firing of missiles and rockets and threat to conduct a new nuclear bomb test.
Nonetheless, the unprecedented visit by the cardinal, who doubles as the archbishop of Seoul and the acting apostolic administrator for Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, deserves attention.
Most of all, Yeom’s visit to Gaeseong came less than three months before Pope Francis’ planned visit to South Korea, the first by the leader of the Catholic Church in 25 years.
As Pope John Paul II did in his 1984 and 1989 visits, Pope Francis is expected to call for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. In his East Sunday address in March last year, the pope said: “On the Korean Peninsula, may disagreements be overcome and a renewed spirit of reconciliation grow.”
Although Yeom’s aides denied the speculation about the possibility of Pope Francis visiting the North, it is certain that the pope will try to send a similar message to the Korean people when he is here. The papal visit will raise world attention not only to the two Koreas’ reconciliation but also to the situation in North Korea regarding its freedom of religion and human rights.
In this sense, Yeom’s visit to Gaeseong was timely. He said upon his return from Gaeseong that he was able to see “hopes that the two Koreas can overcome the pain” of national division.
Religions like the Catholic Church can play a part in turning the hopes into reality. It is also hoped that Yeom’s visit to Gaeseong and the upcoming papal visit to South Korea will help raise awareness about freedom of faith in North Korea.