SEOUL, South Korea – A Roman Catholic cardinal from South Korea traveled Wednesday to North Korea in the first such trip, at a time of rekindled animosity between the neighboring countries.
Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung went to the joint North-South factory park at Kaesong, North Korea, for a one-day trip to tour the complex and meet South Koreans working there, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin said.
South Korean Catholic officials denied media speculation that Yeom's trip might be aimed at preparing for a possible visit by Pope Francis to North Korea when he visits South Korea in August.
The pope plans to visit South Korea from Aug. 14-18 to participate in a Catholic youth festival, preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs and bring a message of peace to the war-divided peninsula. His visit will mark the first time in 25 years that a pope has visited the Korean peninsula.
Yeom is the third South Korean national who has become a Roman Catholic cardinal. His Kaesong trip marks the first time for any South Korean cardinal to visit North Korea, according to the Unification Ministry.
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that distributing Bibles and holding secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
Tension between the two Koreas have risen in recent months, with Pyongyang conducting a series of missile and rocket launches and resuming harsh rhetoric against South Korea and the U.S.
The joint factory park, located just north of the heavily armed land border, is the last remaining cross-border rapprochement project between the two Koreas which are still in a technical state of war because no peace treaty was signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The park combines South Korean initiative, capital and technology with cheap North Korean labor.