Back from a July visit to Pyongyang, Father Joseph Chung Kwang-woong, who led a delegation from the Seoul Archdiocese, said the possibility was discussed with officials of the North Korean Roman Catholic Patriotic Association.
Father Chung led a delegation of the Korea Reconciliation Committee. Meeting at the end of July with patriotic-association president Samuel Chang Jae-eon and other officials, the delegation discussed the question of a permanent presence of South Korean priests in North Korea, for three months at a time, on visitors´ permits.
Earlier, on July 19, Father Chung presided over the opening and blessing ceremony of the Nampo noodle factory, donated by Seoul Catholics.
“The installation took several days. Then the machines began to produce beautiful noodles,” Father Chung said enthusiastically. He added that children “in baby-care units, schools, hospitals and the sick, pregnant women, and the elderly will be the first beneficiaries.”
North Korea has suffered a famine for six years, the result of floods, drought and unsuccessful agricultural policies. International observers say at least 2 million people have died, about 9% of the population.
The gift from the Seoul Catholics included two noodle machines, an electric generator, kneading machines, electric fans, and tools, amounting to $52,000, plus 100 tons of wheat flour valued at $17,300.
Nongovernmental and religious organizations have opened about 60 noodle factories in the North. The Nampo factory is the first to be opened by South Korean Catholics.
“We are behind, compared to these organizations; however, it is never too late,” Father Chung said. “The Reconciliation Committee has assisted North Koreans regularly since 1995, with aid [amounting to] $6.5 million. This noodle factory represents a solid long-term basis to help North Koreans. It is important to share spiritual and humanitarian difficulties, with dialogue and mutual understanding.”
In June, the Catholic Bishops of South Korea issued a message to mark the 2001 Day of Prayer for Reconciliation and Unity of the Korean People. The bishops called on the North Korean authorities to guarantee that country´s few thousand Catholics full religious freedom. The bishops also urged Catholics in the South not to forget their needy brothers and sisters in the North.
The prayer day came a year after the historic meeting of the presidents of North and South, Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung. On that occasion, Kim Jong Il said he was in favor of a possible visit by John Paul II to Pyongyang.
Before the country´s division in 1948, the northern region of Korea had about 60 Catholics priests. All are believed to have been martyred.