- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

KAESONG, North Korea — In a rare nod to religion, communist North Korea has welcomed 500 Buddhist monks and followers from the South to a temple dating from the 11th century, when Kaesong was the 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 press and television, are normally limited to Kim Il-sung, who became the nation’s eternal president on his death in 1994, and 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 in nature.

“We are opening the door wide open for pilgrimages to answer the wish of Buddhist believers in the South,” Ri Chang-dok, from the North’s Council of National Reconciliation, told a small group of reporters traveling with the Buddhists.

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,” Mr. Ri insisted.

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

Not so, the council’s vice chairman, Jong Tok-gi, said after a Buddhist service at Ryongtong. “We have freedom of religion.”

But when a North Korean Buddhist leader spoke at the service, 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 Mr. 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.

“Have you bought anything? Come on, go and buy something,” a North Korean guide urged his visitors, pointing to stalls where young women in traditional costume offered local goods ranging from mushrooms and fake Viagra to books of teachings by the country’s father-and-son leaders — all for U.S. dollars.

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 $5.4 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 Mr. Ri dismissed criticism from some in the South that charging each visitor 170,000 won (about $183) for the relatively short trip was excessive.

“I fail to understand just who these people are who are talking about money when what we have here is a pilgrimage to such a holy temple, the Ryongtong Temple.”



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