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North Korea opens up to Buddhist pilgrimage

by Jack Kim, The Standard (Reuters), June 13, 2007

Pyongyang, North Korea -- In a rare nod to religion, communist North Korea has welcomed 500 Buddhist monks and followers from the South to a Kaesong temple dating from the 11th century when the town, just north of what is now the demilitarized zone, was capital of a unified peninsula.

The visit offered an unusual glimpse of the hermit state where references to the divine - at least in the official media - are normally limited to Kim Il Sung, who became the reclusive state's eternal president and on his death in 1994, Kim Jong Il, his son and the current leader.

North Korean officials were quick to stress that this month's nine-hour visit to the picturesque Ryongtong temple on the outskirts of Kaesong was strictly religious fare.

"We are opening the door for pilgrimages to answer the wish of Buddhist believers in the South," said Ri Chang Dok of the North's Council of National Reconciliation.

The pilgrimage marking the restoration of the temple was the first in a series that will see more than 2,000 South Korean Buddhists travel across the heavily fortified border that has divided Korea for more than half a century.

"There won't be any sightseeing," Ri insisted.

North Korea watchers and critics say the hardline Pyongyang government persecutes religious followers and the only practices tolerated are carefully choreographed displays for outsiders.

Not so, said the council's vice chairman, Jong Tok Gi, after a Buddhist service at Ryongtong.

"We have freedom of religion."

But when a North Korean Buddhist leader spoke, his words had the clear ring of politics and Pyongyang's official obsession with one day ending the divide on the Korean peninsula.

"I have no doubt that if we make this pilgrimage a regular event and allow South Korean believers to come to the temple, North-South cooperation will deepen and that will open a shortcut to the unification of the fatherland," said Sim Sang Jin, vice chairman of the North's Korea Buddhists' Federation.

The North Korean Buddhists, with full heads of hair and colorful costumes, looked anything but the typical monks of the South with their shaven heads and austere gray robes.

Despite Ri's assurances that this was a strictly spiritual affair, the visitors' buses made several stops at tourist sites in the cash-strapped state to give them the chance to buy souvenirs.

"Come on, go and buy something," a North Korean guide urged his visitors, pointing to stalls where young women in traditional costume offered goods ranging from fake Viagra to books of teachings by the country's father-and- son leaders - all for US dollars.

"We're not going to hide anything," said another guide, adding: "We have the discipline, the intelligence and the will" to make ties work.

All that was needed was for the wealthy South to deliver on its commitments to invest in the North.

The birthplace of the small Chontae Buddhist sect, Ryongtong was raised from the rubble of a 17th century fire in 2005 at a cost of 5 billion won (HK$42 million) donated by its South Korean chapter.

"Kaesong was the seat of the Goryeo dynasty [918-1392] for 500 years," said Ju Jung San, a senior monk from the South.

"It should now be the place of national love to lay the ground for unification."

With such high aims, an indignant Ri dismissed criticism that charging each visitor 170,000 won for the short trip - less than 30 minutes from the demilitarized zone - was excessive.



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