A four-day visit to North Korea by representatives of several South Korean religious bodies is a sign tensions may be easing between the two nations, observers said - writes Hisashi Yukimoto.
Led by Roman Catholic Archbishop Kim Hee-joong of Kwangju, the 24-member delegation planned to deliver wishes for peace from South Korea's faith community, hold talks with religious counterparts and participate in joint prayer meetings.
Members of the group represented Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Confucian and other faith groups. They belong to the Korean Conference of Religions for Peace and are visiting the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and other cities from 21 to 24 September.
On 22 September 2011, the group held talks with Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (parliament), "in a compatriotic atmosphere," the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Bishop Peter Kang of Cheju, president of the Episcopal Conference of South Korea, told the Fides Catholic news service that the visit will keep communications open with the North. "But we need to be realistic ... Religions will continue to bring humanitarian aid to the population of the North who suffer from hunger, and this is the interest of Pyongyang. Believers in the North are closely monitored and religious freedom is denied," he told Fides.
Exchanges between faith groups in the two countries were fairly common until recent years, said one observer. "From 2005 to 2007, they were frequently visiting each other during the time of [South Korea's then-President] Roh Mu Hyun's administration," Yoshinori Shinohara, an official of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace based in Tokyo, told ENInews.
But after Lee Myung-Bak became president of South Korea, "the situation continued to be tense, following the sinking of the South Korean [navy] vessel [Cheonan] in March last year. One of their aims is to deepen their friendship by repeating such mutual visits," he said.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]