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A group of Buddhists rejected by Pyongyang

by Yoo Jee-ho, JoongAng Daily, March 13, 2010

Pyongyang, North Korea -- North Korea refused to accept a group of South Korean Buddhists for a visit on the same day that the South’s government authorized the trip.

The move is something of an about-face for the North, which had not earlier discouraged such trips.

The Unification Ministry on Thursday approved a visit by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Southís largest Buddhist sect, to North Korea to discuss expanding Buddhist exchanges between the two Koreas.

But the Jogye Order said the North asked that the trip be delayed. It was first scheduled to take place yesterday.

The Jogye Orderís North Korean counterpart, called the Korean Buddhists Federation, didnít provide specific reasons for its postponement. The South Korean Buddhists are trying to set a new schedule for the visit.

In January, Rev. Jaseung, the administration director for the Jogye Order, met North Korean Buddhist leaders in Pyongyang to discuss religious exchange programs between the North and the South. If this visit had materialized, the Jogye Order would have also discussed sending up to 4,000 South Korean Buddhists to the Shingye Temple at Mount Kumgang for a mass service.

But the visit would have fallen in the middle of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, the joint military drills by South Korea and the United States. The North has repeatedly denounced the exercises as a precursor to an invasion of the North. Pyongyang placed its military forces on full alert on March 8, the first day of the exercises.

Last month, the Unification Ministry refused to allow the Jogye Buddhists to hold inter-Korean meetings on the mass service, citing the state of inter-Korean relations. But the ministry said it decided to authorize this latest trip because ďit was part of routine religious exchanges.Ē

Tours to the Mount Kumgang resort have remained suspended after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier after she entered a restricted military zone near the resort. The Unification Ministry maintains that Kumgang should stay off-limits until the tour program is revived. Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to shred all existing inter-Korean contracts on the tour program, accusing South Korea of blocking the travel route.

The inter-Korean discussion in February on restarting the Kumgang tours yielded nothing. At the meeting, the North proposed the Mount Kumgang tours resume on April 1. The South didnít respond and instead countered that the North should first reconsider the Southís demands for safety guarantees for South Koreans.

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