Cardinal Andrew Yeom says he saw hope for peace after visiting North Korea

May 21, 2014

Cardinal Andrew Yeom leads a prayer during his one-day visit to the inter-Korean industrial park in North Korea’s border city of Gaeseong, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung paid a one-day visit to the inter Korean industrial park in North Korea’s border city of Gaeseong, Wednesday.

“I saw hope for the two Koreas to overcome their pain and sorrow,” said the cardinal upon his return from theGaeseong Industrial Complex (GIC).  ”I truly believe peace can be brought to the Korean Peninsula if good people hold conversations and work diligently,” he said.

It marked the first visit to the North by a South Korean cardinal. Tensionbetween the two Koreas has been growing because of Pyongyang’smissile launches and a possible fourth nuclear test.

The Ministry of Unification, which handles all inter-Korean affairs, flatly denied there were any political implications to the trip.

“No political meeting with North Korean government officials is set for Cardinal Yeom,” said ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin at a regular briefing. “No schedule has been fixed for the cardinal’s visit to Pyongyang as well.”

According to the ministry, the archbishop of Seoul met South Korean Catholic workers in the factory and toured related facilities.

The ministry said the cardinal initially planned to visit the GIC in December but the tour was canceled because of internal political turmoil in Pyongyang following the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the same month.

The North approved Yeom’s trip Monday, according to the ministry.

Some experts viewed the move as part of North Korean propaganda related to religious freedom.

However, North Korean defectors and various reports suggest the reclusive nation severely cracks down on any religious activity.

“Cardinal Yeom’s trip is meaningful only in the religious sense,” said a government official. “Given the current soured inter-Korean ties, it would be difficult to have a huge impact on bilateral relations.”

Meanwhile, the trip has sparked speculation as to whether it was meant to lay the groundwork for a possible trip to the North by Pope Francis, something the Archdiocese of Seoul dismissed.

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.

The GIC, which functions with a combination of South Korean capital and technology and the North’s cheap labor force, serves as a major revenue source for the cash-strapped state and is also the only remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

More than 44,000 North Koreans work for more than 100 South Korean firms, producing clothes, shoes, watches and other labor-intensive goods.