“It is not easy to tell about this visit. Geographically, it is so close to South Korea, but politically so far away. When I lived in South Korea it was never possible to go to the North. After many years of waiting, and by making a detour via France and China, I at last arrived in North Korea.
Korea has been divided in two ever since 1945. The enormous after-effects of the 1950-1953 fratricidal war between North and South can still be felt today. Great tension and mistrust between the two have reigned for many years. Attempts at coming closer have always come to nothing and tension has resumed. Over the last two years there have been new efforts at coming together but the results are meagre and peace remains fragile.
The difficulties that North Korea has experienced since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe are enormous. In addition, there have been natural disasters, like the floods and the drought of recent years. The population has suffered very much. People say that the worst is past, but the shortages continue.
I was very impressed to meet people deeply marked by the difficult years, yet who are warm and display great kindness and dignity. Several informal contacts with local people showed how important it is to overcome prejudices and even clichés. Above all, where there is tension or a lack of understanding it is essential to try to discern the beauty of the human soul, whatever the person’s political or religious conviction. In the parks in Pyongyang, I could often see people who were relaxed and who were singing, dancing and celebrating together.
I was able to visit a high school where Taizé, in collaboration with UNESCO, had sent a number of computers. A dozen students in the computer room, each one in front of their computer. A teacher expresses thanks for the computers and explains how much the students are eager to learn. I also visited a clinic in a rural area. The medical staff is well trained but the lack of medicine and equipment is striking. I was able to hand over a quantity if basic medicines as a sign of solidarity.
A short meeting with Christians touched me deeply. I took part in the Sunday celebration at a Protestant Church and later visited the Catholic Church. Over fifty years ago, before the war, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, had many Christians. Now there are only three churches open in the whole country. Apparently, apart from Sunday services, there are no activities at all. The welcome is warm but the exchange with the Christians is too short. I tell them again and again how much we are in communion with them through prayer. This visibly touches them. “Come and see us again. Come more often”, as I leave them.
This visit to North Korea, so much longed for and at last realised, has left me with many questions. What can be done for the reconciliation and the reunification of the two Koreas? I think of the thousands of Korean families who have been separated for half a century. Most of them have never been able to visit their relatives on the other side of the frontier. Will peace actually come soon to the Korean peninsula? Korea remains the most heavily armed region in the world. What role can Christians play in promoting understanding and peace making? In the immediate future, what can Christians do to express their solidarity with the people of North Korea – especially the children - who are experiencing shortages in every field? We must pray a great deal, and not forget the people of North Korea. But our prayer has to be accompanied by practical gestures, no matter how big or small they may be.