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Seoul allows monk to take trip to North to boost ties

June 01,2018
Seoul allowed a Buddhist monk to visit Pyongyang today to discuss the restoration of a temple at Mount Kumgang and strengthen ties with Buddhist leaders in the North, the first time the Moon Jae-in administration gave permission to a South Korean to physically engage in civilian-to-civilian interactions with North Koreans, Seoul’s Unification Ministry announced Thursday.

A monk who goes by the name Cheondam, chairman of the board of a local civic group called World Peace Foundation, will travel to the North Korean capital via China today and stay until Wednesday, said the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean ties.

Cheondam, who, like most Buddhist monks, goes by one name, is expected to meet Kang Su-rin, chairman of the Central Committee of the Buddhist Federation of Korea, one of a very small number of state-sanctioned religious organizations.

The ministry said Cheondam was invited by the North and that the South Korean government granted permission for his travel on Wednesday in order to “improve ties on all fronts” with Pyongyang.

The monk’s visit to the North comes at a sensitive time. Aside from talks with the United States about a leaders’ summit, the U.S. State Department Tuesday lambasted the country in its annual report on religious freedom, saying around 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners are believed to be held in prison camps in remote areas under horrific conditions, some of them for religious reasons.

In a country that strictly revolves around the cult of leader Kim Jong-un, religious activities are regarded as a threat to authority, which results in severe abuses.

A 2015 report from the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification said there were 60 Buddhist temples in North Korea, but that most North Koreans didn’t realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities.

Cheondam will be the 10th South Korean private citizen to travel to North Korea since Moon came to office in May 2017, after eight reporters went last week to cover the demolition of a nuclear test site and a man went last November to visit his mother’s grave.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]