SEOUL (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church of South Korea has started training priests to serve in North Korea, a country criticized by the United States and others for stamping out religion, for the first time in about 40 years.
"It's not something North Korea wants us to do. We are doing this with an eye toward the future when the two Koreas unify," Monsignor Matthew Hwang In-kuk, the Episcopal vicar of the Pyongyang Diocese, said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.
Communist North Korea, which Church officials estimated had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War, does not allow priests to be permanently stationed in the country.
The five candidates began studies a few days ago for the priesthood, Monsignor Hwang said. The Church plans to recruit a new group each year.
It will take about 10 years to complete preparations and even then, they may not be allowed into the North.
Priests from the South do occasionally visit the hermit state, usually to accompany the delivery of aid or the start of a humanitarian project, and a visiting priest reportedly celebrated mass in Pyongyang when Pope John Paul II died.
There used to be about 20 priests in the Pyongyang diocese, which was incorporated into the Seoul diocese in 1970. The priests worked in the South but only seven of the group are still active, including Monsignor Hwang, who was born in Pyongyang in 1936 and fled North Korea during the Korean War at the age of 14.
"At the time when the Pyongyang diocese was incorporated into the Seoul diocese, it was a precondition for priests like myself to go back as soon as the two Koreas unify," he said.
The same applies to the five who just entered training for the priesthood, who are not been given any special preparation for serving in one of the world's most isolated states.
The Church in South Korea launched a new push into the North about three years ago when the Vatican named Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk as the new cardinal for South Korea. He also serves as the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang.
What is believed to be the first Catholic community in Pyongyang was formed in 1896. In 1927, the Pyongyang apostolic prefecture was carved out of the then Diocese of Seoul.
Japan's defeat in World War Two brought an end to its 1910-1945 colonial rule over Korea. The peninsula was then divided along Cold War battle lines and the new communist leaders in the North crushed any religion as they tried to build a cult of personality around state founder Kim Il-sung, historians say.
Priests and religious leaders were either killed or sent to political prison camps. Those practicing any faith faced punishment or death while the North's state propaganda launched a process to turn Kim Il-sung into a deity who would lead the masses to a place that would be a heaven on Earth.
Although the North says it protects religion, the U.S. State Department said in a report in 2008: "Genuine religious freedom does not exist." It quotes defectors as saying the North executes and arrests members of underground Christian churches.
The North built several churches, including a Catholic one about 20 years ago to show it allowed the practice of religion, but human rights groups have described the move as "a sham."
The South Korean Catholic Church will not say what it estimates to be the Catholic population in the North but outside groups have said it numbers in the few hundreds to about 4,000.
There are about 4.5 million Catholics in South Korea, which has a population of about 49 million and one of the largest percentages of Catholics of any country in Asia.
Monsignor Hwang has an old map of Pyongyang hanging in his office and gladly points out where his home used to be and how close his former church -- now long gone -- was to what has now become Kim Il-sung Square in the center of the city.
"We (the priests from the North) will perhaps be dead before unification, but the students hopefully won't be."