MEETING WITH THE NEW CARDINALS
Korea, for a reconciliation between North and South
An interview with the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk, on the priorities of the Korean Church. Among which there is that of making every effort for the reunification of the two Koreas, divided since the time of the Cold War
Interview with Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk by Gianni Cardinale
One of the qualifying elements of the first Consistory
of Benedict XVI was the conspicuous number of cardinals created from the
Church in Asia. Of the twelve new cardinals created on 24 March by Pope
Ratzinger, in fact, all of three come from the continent percentually least
Catholic in the world: the archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales Borbon,
the Salesian bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and the archbishop of
Seoul, Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk.
|Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk, second from the left, greeting other members
of the Sacred College immediately after his creation as cardinal at the Consistory
of 24 March 2006 ||
Seventy-four year old Cardinal Cheong Jinsuk, a native
of Seoul, has been a priest since 1961, studied Canon Law at the Pontifical
Urbanian University and in 1970 was appointed bishop of Cheongju, where he
remained for twenty-eight years. In 1998, in fact, he was promoted to
archbishop of Seoul and apostolic administrator of Pyong-yang, one of the
three ecclesiastical districts of North Korea, vacant since the late
We met Cardinal Cheong Jinsuk at the Pontifical Korean
College, in Via Aldobrandeschi, on the north-eastern outskirts of Rome.
Your Eminence, how did you take your nomination as
NICHOLAS CHEONG JINSUK: Frankly I believe that the
reason why I was nominated cardinal wasn’t for my personal capacities
but because of the particular position of the Korean Church, that has grown
a lot by now from all points of view. By now Catholics in South Korea
number four and a half million, nine percent of the population, the largest
percentage in Asia after the Philippines and Vietnam.
How do you explain the Pope’s decision to create
as many as three Asian cardinals?
CHEONG JINSUK: The first millennium was characterized
by the spread of Christianity in Europe. The second by the evangelization
of the Americas, of Africa, of Oceania. In his book Arise, let’s go! John Paul II
wrote: «Asia: here is our shared task for the third
millennium!». I believe that Benedict XVI’s decision must be
seen in the light of that statement of his predecessor.
The Catholic Ucanews agency has written that you have a «relatively
calm» attitude compared to your predecessor, Cardinal Stephen Kim
Sou-hwan – archbishop of Seoul from 1968 to 1998 – «who
often intervened openly on social and political questions»…
CHEONG JINSUK: I don’t much like comparisons.
But the press has made them…
JINSUK CHEONG: Cardinal Kim, for whom I nurture great
respect, found himself facing a particular situation. He had to confront a
military dictatorship and a socio-economic situation of underdevelopment.
And so he focused his efforts on the defense of human rights. And that gave
him much prominence. Now the situation is different. Korea is a democracy
and one of the most developed countries in Asia and hence the faithful also
demand a different kind of approach from the cardinal of Seoul. Though
it’s a fixed point that the Church is and always will be close to the
poor, other priorities have arisen.
What are they?
CHEONG JINSUK: Mainly two. First the defense of life
from its conception and sharp opposition to any attempt at genetic
manipulation. And then to make every effort for reconciliation between the
As well as being archbishop of Seoul, you are also
apostolic administrator of Pyong-yang. Have you ever visited North Korea?
CHEONG JINSUK: No, never. I asked permission, but the
authorities would grant it only if I brought a very conspicuous donation
with me. It was a figure the diocese couldn’t afford and so I
didn’t go. You should know that you can go into the North only if you
take substantial aid.
In June 2004, for the first time, you appointed an
Episcopal vicar for Pyong-yang: Monsignor Matteus Hwang In-kuk. What was
the significance of the nomination?
CHEONG JINSUK: Monsignor Hwang In-kuk is a native of
Pyong-yang: he was expelled from the North as a child with all his family
and then he was ordained priest in the South. His main task is to deal with
the descendants of the many Catholics that were forced to flee to the
South. In the hope that in future he may also deal with the Catholics of
Are there priests and Catholic bishops in North Korea?
CHEONG JINSUK: No. There’s no knowledge of
priests surviving persecution that came in the late ’forties, when
166 priests and religious were killed or kidnapped. The Pontifical Yearbook
continues to describe as «missing» the man who was the bishop
of Pyong-yang at the time, Monsignor Francis Hong Yong-ho, who today would
be a hundred years old. It’s a gesture by the Holy See to point to
the tragedy that the Church in Korea has suffered and is still going
Do Catholic believers and churches still exist in the
CHEONG JINSUK: Before 1949 there were 55,000 Catholics
in North Korea. When the persecution was unleashed many escaped, but many
were killed. Today some say there are still a thousand Catholics, other say
there might be three thousand. But there’s no certain knowledge. The
churches were all destroyed, though when the Olympics took place in South
Korea, suddenly one was built in Pyong-yang, out of nowhere… But it
was no miracle: it’s easy to see that it was a move by the regime in
an attempt to show that in the North there were Catholics also free to
profess their faith. Which obviously doesn’t match up to reality.
Who runs that “church”?
CHEONG JINSUK: A so-called Catholic Association headed
by a layman, Jang Jae-yon, who has recently also been appointed president
of the North Korean Red Cross.
Do they celebrate mass there?
CHEONG JINSUK: At times, when there are priests passing
through. It happened, for example, last year when the late-lamented Pope
John Paul II died. By chance a Korean priest from an American diocese, from
Texas I think, happened to be there in those days, so celebrated a mass in
suffrage for the dead Pontiff.
So priests are allowed to enter North Korea?
|Benedict XVI placing the cardinalís biretta on Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk |
CHEONG JINSUK: Yes, on the condition that – as I
already said – they bring aid. But the authorities don’t allow
any fixed presence, though some priests had offered to become such.
Has the Korean Church sent much aid to the North?
CHEONG JINSUK: In the last ten years the Korean
Catholic Church has sent aid, above all foodstuff, to the value of eleven
Has the aid effectively reached the people?
CHEONG JINSUK: The Church gave it out to the people.
Even if is there are those who say that afterwards the government
authorities came round to requisition it…
Are there representatives of other Christian
denominations in North Korea?
CHEONG JINSUK: At the time of the Olympics, as well as
a Catholic church, the authorities also built a Protestant church and it
seems there are also a couple of pastors who carry out functions. But the
most curious thing are the Orthodox. As a mark of gratitude to Vladimir
Putin the North Korean regime sent four Koreans to Moscow to study theology
and get ordained priests. Something quite amazing given we had no knowledge
of any Orthodox believers in those parts...
The Korean Church is rich in vocations and has sent
missionaries to many Asian countries. To China also?
CHEONG JINSUK: Officially not. What I can say is that
there are Korean nuns in Manchuria who engage in social work, without
however wearing the religious habit.
Your Eminence, are you optimistic about future
reunification of the two Koreas?
CHEONG JINSUK: We hope and we pray it may happen. For
myself, I repeat, I shall try to do my best to encourage the process, under
the sage guidance of the Holy See. Now that the Holy See and China are
trying to converse, I believe it can have a certain influence on relations
between our two countries. But only the Lord knows when.