On the road in North Korea with the Presiding Bishop

November 28, 2007

North Korea is among the most difficult countries in the world to visit. Nonetheless, representatives from throughout the Anglican Communion were welcomed for a peace trip November 14 and to provide humanitarian aid to a destroyed village.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori led a delegation from the Episcopal Church to the international Anglican peace conference Towards Peace in Korea (TOPIK) in Seoul, South Korea and, prior to its November 15 start, to the pre-conference journey at Geumgangsan in North Korea.

November 13, 2007
Following a whirlwind visit in China, a two-hour plane ride transported the Episcopal Church delegation to Seoul. A time change, a stop to secure items prohibited in North Korea, and a five-and-one-half hour car ride brought the travelers close to the border.

South Korea is mountainous and the land was ablaze in autumn colors with the changing leaves. Headed northeast, the group traveled across the width of the country to Kum Kang San Condo in Goseong, overlooking the north Pacific Ocean and only 10 minutes from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), to wait until morning for the next step.

November 14 To Geumgangsan
At dawn, the activity level was almost manic as the Koreans who filled the Goseong hotel departed early for a day trip to North Korea. Border crossings are allowed only during certain times, so the pressure was on to make it in time.

The DMZ is four kilometers wide -- two in the North and two in South Korea. All four kilometers are edged by barbed wire. Traveling through the heavily fortified DMZ, it is alive with trees and foliage, but void of villages and people, except for the soldiers standing erect and on guard. Buses were the mode of travel -- no personal cars, mopeds or bikes were in sight.

Rules were distributed with repeated admonitions that they must be followed: no talking to the soldiers or any North Koreans. Blackberrys, cell phones, larger cameras, videos, and laptops are not allowed. No newspapers, magazines or books from South Korea. Photos are permitted only in certain areas. Photos of North Koreans are permitted only after asking. IDs must be worn at all times.

The paperwork, permissions, visas and proper forms with photos required days prior to arriving at the border were examined and scrutinized. After border processing and entrance to the country, the group traveled north from the DMZ about 20 minutes to Geumgangsan, the site of the pre-conference Anglican meeting. Old and new friends laughed and smiled as they greeted one another, catching up on their lives in many languages.

Jefferts Schori and the group were warmly welcomed by clergy and lay people gathered to talk about peace. On hand were primates of the Anglican Communion, including Archbishop Francis Park of Anglican Church in Korea, the host and chairperson of the event; Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland, emissary of the Archbishop of Canterbury and president of TOPIK; former Archbishop of New Zealand Sir Paul Reeves; Archbishop Ignacio Soliba, Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines; and Archbishop Nathaniel Makoto Uematsu of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Japan; along with Archbishop Roger Herft of Perth in Australia.

Geumgangsan has been transformed into a tourist haven, complete with hotels, restaurants, theaters and a shopping area, developed in large part by Hyundai Corporation. Friendly and helpful staff was on hand to assist, always with a smile.

The area was jammed with buses and people who were making a special pilgrimage to Mt. Geumgang, their holy mountain.

2 p.m. Climbing Mt. Geumgang
It was raining. No, it was pouring. But the weather didn't dampen the spirits of the Korean visitors and Anglican travelers who were eager to climb the sacred mountain.

Shrouded in mist, rocky with a smattering of autumn leaves, Mt. Geumgang, also known as Mt. Diamond, is a holy site for the Korean people. Rock steps -- carved and installed decades prior -- provide a climbing path. Bridges along the ascent were highlighted by important sayings carved in rock. Slippery because of the rain, visitors and pilgrims made their way carefully.

The Presiding Bishop -- a dedicated runner -- hiked all the way to the top, where it was snowing. (A member of the Episcopal delegation made it almost halfway up, while two others about one-quarter of the way. One opted to pass on the climb to stay at the base, dry and warm.)

Jefferts Schori later remarked that, after seeing Mt. Geumgang firsthand, "I understand the art work of Asia much better. The trees are different and the rocks are different. It is an interesting and beautiful place."

4 p.m. Humanitarian Aid
The time for the presentation of humanitarian aid changed often during the day; nonetheless the Episcopal and Anglican visitors, along with Korean hosts, bestowed $20,000 worth of aid in the form of building materials and medical supplies. Despite the heavy rain, smiles graced the faces of the presenters during the ceremony held outside a warehouse close to the tourist area.

Jefferts Schori was among the Anglican party that presented the cement, covers for greenhouses and glucose, earmarked for the North Korean village On-Jeong, destroyed by last year's floods. The aid comes from the Anglican Communion and primarily from Episcopal Relief and Development, Australia, the Korean Christian Movement, and Hyundai.

6 p.m. Eucharist
The Eucharist may have been held in a conference room in a restaurant that was actually a docked boat (and hence rocked back and forth). Nevertheless, it was one for the history books. Park reported the celebration was the first official Eucharist in North Korea since World War II.

His sermon reflected the hope of peace for a unified peninsula. Conducted in Korean, the Eucharist followed the Anglican tradition of worship, known to all in the room and therefore easy to follow, no matter what language.

November 15, leaving north Korea
Following group photos at two hotels and waving goodbye to the hotel workers, it was time to leave North Korea and head to the next part of TOPIK, in Seoul.

Only a little more than 24 hours and another trip through the heavily fortified DMZ brought the Anglican peace delegation to South Korea and TOPIK.

Peter Ng, partnership officer for Asia and the Pacific and a member of the Episcopal delegation, later reflected on this remarkable journey and presentation. "Two years ago, Archbishop Park shared his vision and his desire for this forum," particularly the trip to North Korea. Now that it has occurred, "You need to have faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ -- it happened. The Anglican Communion can be the instrument of peace and devotion in Korean Peninsula."

Along with Ng, traveling with the Presiding Bishop, were the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries, and the Rev. Dr Charles Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop.