SKoreans visiting North Korea for Buddhist service

AP News
Posted: Sep 03, 2011 8:02 AM
SKoreans visiting North Korea for Buddhist service

A religious delegation from South Korea arrived in the North Korean capital on Saturday to mark an anniversary celebrated by Buddhists on both sides of the heavily fortified border.

Due to political tensions, South Korean citizens are prohibited from traveling to North Korea without government permission. The delegation received approval in Seoul to make the rare trip to attend a ceremony at the ancient Pohyon Temple in the mountains northwest of the North Korean capital.

They landed Saturday in Pyongyang for a five-day visit, AP Television News reported in Pyongyang. They held a banner celebrating their visit at the airport. The Venerable Jaseung, who is leading the delegation, shook hands with Sim Sang Jin, an official at North Korea's Buddhist association, APTN said.

The South Koreans will join Buddhists from North Korea in a service marking the 1,000th anniversary of the engraving of the Tripitaka Koreana. The 80,000 woodblocks designed to print Buddhist scripture are considered sacred by Buddhists across the Korean peninsula and are revered by both countries as a relic of their shared heritage.

South Korean Buddhists have been one of the leading groups in providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea. The group's trip is seen as a sign that relations may improve between the Koreas and comes days after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak replaced his government's point man on North Korea in an appointment seen as signaling his willingness to improve cross-border ties.

Relations have been tense since Lee took office in 2008 with a tougher policy on the North than his two liberal predecessors.

He tightened sanctions against North Korea in May last year following the sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors; Pyongyang denies involvement. An artillery shelling on a front-line island later in the year further strained ties.

Most religious and cultural exchanges have stopped as a result.

However, the Unification Ministry in Seoul said the group of 37 was granted permission to attend the religious ceremony because of the cultural significance of the anniversary. They are also expected to visit two other temples near Pyongyang.

The Korean peninsula remains in a state of conflict because the three-year Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.