SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A Roman Catholic cardinal from South Korea visited North Korea for the first time Wednesday, despite rekindled animosity between the neighboring countries.
Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung and other South Korean priests traveled to a joint North-South industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea, to tour the complex and meet South Koreans working there.
Yeom told reporters after his return from the one-day visit that seeing South and North Koreans working in harmony gave him hope that the two countries can "overcome their pain and sorrow."
The joint industrial park, located just north of the heavily armed border, is the last remaining cross-border rapprochement project between the rival Koreas. It combines South Korean initiative, capital and technology with cheap North Korean labor. Operations at the decade-old complex were suspended for months last year when tensions sharply rose over repeated North Korean threats of nuclear war.
South Korean Catholic officials denied media speculation that Yeom's trip might be aimed at preparing for a possible visit by Pope Francis to North Korea when he visits South Korea in August. Fr. Hur Young-yup, who went to Kaesong with the cardinal, said Yeom didn't meet any North Korean officials there.
The pope plans to visit South Korea on Aug. 14-18 to participate in a Catholic youth festival, preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs and bring a message of peace to the war-divided peninsula. His visit will be the first in 25 years by a pope to the Korean Peninsula.
Yeom is the third South Korean national who has become a Roman Catholic cardinal. His trip was the first by a South Korean cardinal to North Korea, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned religious services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that distributing Bibles and holding secret prayer services can result in banishment to a labor camp or execution.
Tensions between the two Koreas have risen in recent months, with North Korea conducting a series of missile and rocket launches and resuming its use of harsh rhetoric against South Korea and the U.S.