SEOUL, South Korea – The son of veteran U.S. evangelist Billy Graham arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to deliver aid to the impoverished country more than six months after the isolated regime kicked out all American humanitarian groups.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, who leads the Christian ministry his father founded, said he hoped his visit would "play the role of a bridge for better relations" between the U.S. and North Korea, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said.
Ri Gun, director-general in charge of U.S. affairs at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, was at the airport to welcome Graham, footage from broadcaster APTN in Pyongyang showed. Graham and Ri, who also serves as North Korea's deputy nuclear negotiator, held talks later Tuesday, APTN said.
Pyongyang has spent much of the year withdrawing from and provoking the international community. In March, it began refusing American food shipments and booted out all U.S. aid groups operating in the country. Then it launched a long-range missile and conducted a nuclear test, drawing a raft of U.N. sanctions. In response to the measures, North Korea pulled out of international disarmament talks.
But more recently, the North has indicated it would be willing to restart those negotiations if it were able to hold direct talks with Washington — a long-held goal of the reclusive regime. In an apparent attempt to bolster its negotiating position ahead of any talks, the North fired several missiles off its eastern coast on Monday.
Graham's visit marks the first by an American aid agency in months. He is the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the aid agency Samaritan's Purse, which has provided more than $10 million in aid to the North since 1997.
North Korea has suffered chronic food shortages since flooding and mismanagement destroyed its economy in the mid-1990s. Widespread famine is believed to have killed some 2 million North Koreans, with more than 6 million North Koreans needing food handouts, according to the World Food Program.
Sanmaritan's Purse said on its Web site that Graham will oversee the delivery of $190,000 in equipment and supplies for a new dental school in Pyongyang, meet with high-level officials and visit one of three hospitals where the group has installed electricity generators.
The group said Graham will visit China later this week.
The latest trip is Graham's third to North Korea. He also visited Pyongyang last year.
Billy Graham's family has had relations with the communist North for years. The senior Graham went to North Korea in 1992 and in 1994 at the invitation of late North Korean President Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il.