“I have vivid memories of my early childhood years in Pyongyang. I think it’s because my parents often spoke about the places where we had lived, such as the Daedong River, the bridge, Moranbong, Seongyo-ri, Pyongyang East and Pyongyang Station”, recalled Monsignor Peter Lee Ki-heon. Today he serves as bishop of the diocese of Uijeongbu, located a few kilometres away from the border with North Korea. But his story has the aura of time. He was born in Pyongyang in December 1947. In 1951, when he was only 4, he had to leave the Country as a result of the Korean war. His father left for Busan a few months before his arrival with his mother and his sister. But other two sisters remained in Pyongyang, and his mother continued living with a broken heart for the rest of her life. Msgr. Lee Ki-heon cherishes a vivid recollection of their arrival in the Cathedral of Busan where they took shelter with refugees from North Korea. They began a new life in the South, but on the other side of the border the rest of his family experienced martyrdom.
“When the communist party of Il-Sung Kim took control of the North, they began to persecute Christians and the situation grew worse year by year”, said the Bishop. In 1949 all the clergymen of the Pyongyang district were arrested and the cathedral was closed. The faithful in Pyongyang were devastated. “My mother – the bishop recalled – used to tell us the story of her brave Christian brothers. Among them was my uncle Jae-Ho Lee, shepherd of the Kirim-ri Church in Pyongyang. The Communist party arrived and arrested him. My mother and other Christians protested. Now also my uncle is in the beatification process with the other martyrs and bishop Yong-Ho Hong”. “Almost all our Christian brethren have died”, the bishop added. “I have but a distant memory of my birth town, and I am seventy years-old. Before their death, my parents used to say:
“Will the Christians in the North be able to preserve their faith without priests? Will they pray even though there are no other Christians there?”
“Their questions are my questions today. I never stopped praying for them.” Today Bishop Lee Ki-heon is the President of the Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean people, created within the Korean Bishops’ Conference
You Excellency, how are you living through this historical chapter of peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula?
The journey towards peace that all Koreans dreamt of has begun. It was unimaginable until last winter. I am full of hope. I think that the Lord has heard our prayers. All Koreans followed the televised broadcast of the historic summit between North and South Korea and the subsequent meeting between North Korea and the United States. These images testified to the possibility of finding a solution to 70-year-long hostilities. Those events rekindled hopes of peace between all the Korean people, those of the South and of North.
I believe we owe the beginning of this process to Pope Francis and to Catholic faithful who prayed for Korea.
What news do you have from North Korea? Are there cases of divided families? What does it mean for them to know nothing or very little about their relatives? Seventy years have gone by. Are these bonds still strong?
I think that many people, also in Europe, are unaware of the situation of the Korean peninsula. For example, they imagine there could be contacts “on the border.” But the truth is that it’s impossible to know if family members are still alive. There is no way of exchanging letters or receiving some kind of information. In the 1990s, when the two Presidents were on friendly terms, some organizations and religious leaders had the opportunity of travelling. The Church of the South and the Church of the North were allowed to meet, to communicate, to send humanitarian aid. But over the last period almost all contacts have been interrupted.
I firmly between that enabling divided families to come together again should be a top priority.
In Korea there are many divided families. Even my two sisters live in North Korea. Almost 70 years have gone by and most of them have died; we’re talking about people who are now more than 90-years-old. There are 4-5000 survivors, according to recent estimates. It is hoped that the South and the North will promote the reunification of divided families through the Red Cross Committee.
What benefit do you hope the reconciliation process will bring to the Catholic and Christian population in the North?
In North Korea religion cannot be freely professed yet. At an external level there is freedom of religion, but it’s imperfect and immature especially as regards catechesis, liturgy and sacraments. However, the information collected so far shows that some things are slowly changing, compared to the past. Alongside with the reconciliation process it is necessary to promote a gradual process of change also with regard to religion, I hope this will be done.
Peace can never be taken for grated. Would you like to send a message to all the leaders involved in the various negotiations?
I think that our path of peace that started amidst many difficulties has taken shape thanks to dialogue and mutual trust. I believe that also the “Panmunjom Declaration” could bring fruits if the involved leaders of North and South Korea communicate with each other in patience and respect, on the basis of mutual understanding.
What could be the role of the Churches?
South-Korean President Moon Jae-in has highlighted the role that religion can play to strengthen the relations between North and South Korea. Its task is not confined to promoting direct interaction. In fact in includes the promotion of a climate of harmony, to foster an atmosphere that welcomes mutual cooperation.