S. Korean religious leaders head to N. Korea for rare visit
Published : Sep 21, 2011 - 10:55
Updated : Sep 21, 2011 - 10:55

SEOUL, Sept. 21 (Yonhap) -- A group of South Korean religious leaders left for North Korea on Wednesday for a rare visit they said could contribute to peace and reconciliation on the divided peninsula.

The seven leaders representing Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and various ethnic religions plan to hold joint prayer meetings and events with their North Korean counterparts in the North's capital of Pyongyang and other parts of the country. The Seoul government approved their four-day trip last week, a rare move that comes amid signs of a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

"We plan to convey our longing for peace to the North," said Archbishop of Gwangju Kim Hee-joong, who heads the Korea Conference of Religion for Peace (KCRP), an organization that groups South Korea's seven major religions.

"Religious leaders of the South and the North hope to contribute, even in small parts, to uniting hearts toward reunification and opening a new chapter of reconciliation and cooperation, by coming together to resolve for peace," he said, reading out a joint statement before leaving Incheon International Airport, South Korea's main gateway.

He also said it is the first time for the leaders of the seven major religions to jointly visit North Korea, and asked for the people's prayers that their trip would bear "good and beautiful fruit."

The leaders and their entourage are expected to arrive in Pyongyang around 5 p.m. after transiting in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Upon arrival, the 24-member delegation will attend a welcome dinner in Pyongyang.

On Thursday, they will tour North Korean religious facilities and attend a conference with their Northern counterparts, according to the KCRP.

They will also hold a peace prayer meeting the following day on Mount Paekdu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, which Pyongyang claims as the birthplace of its leader, Kim Jong-il. The 2,750-meter-high peak is also mentioned in the South's national anthem.

Local media reports have suggested that the leaders may meet Kim Jong-il during their stay.

"It's impossible to predict whether we'll be able to meet (Kim Jong-il). (If given the chance), I'd like to tell him that it would be good for the two Koreas to look for a way to live together harmoniously," Archbishop Kim said.

The visit is the latest in a series of trips to North Korea by South Korean cultural and religious officials.

South Korean orchestra conductor Chung Myung-whun returned to Seoul last week from a trip to North Korea during which he agreed with North Korean musicians to push for joint concerts of an inter-Korean symphony orchestra.   

Earlier this month, the government also allowed officials from South Korea's largest Buddhist sect to visit the North, the first such trip since ties fell to the lowest level in decades after the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year.