SEOUL (UCAN) -- An American Maryknoll priest says aid to North Korea has to be given with North Koreans, South Koreans and the international community working together.
Maryknoll Father Gerard Hammond wants to be a tool for the reconciliation of the two Koreas and has been supporting North Korea with medical and other aid for more than 10 years. On Feb. 22, he was appointed advisor to the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang diocese, Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk of Seoul.
Father Hammond was born in 1933 in Philadelphia, the United States. He was ordained a priest in 1960 and came to South Korea that same year as a missioner. He first visited North Korea in 1996, and has since visited there 24 times.
Now he is chairperson of the steering committee of Caritas Internationalis' North Korea Country Group, which includes the relief and development agencies of the Catholic Churches in Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, South Korea and the United States. The group was led by Caritas-Hong Kong until Nov. 1, 2006, when Caritas Corea took on that role.
Father Hammond, the Korea regional superior of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is secretary of the Korean bishops' Special Episcopal Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People.
North Korea officially allows religious activities. According to Church sources, there are some 3,000 Catholics in North Korea. Changchung Church in Pyongyang is the only Catholic church in the North, but it has no resident priest or Religious.
Father Hammond is planning his 25th visit to North Korea in late March. UCA News spoke with the North Korea specialist on March 7 at the Maryknoll house in Seoul. The interview follows:
UCA NEWS: What is your role in your new position as advisor to the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang diocese?
FATHER GERARD HAMMOND: The nomination is to remind people that reconciliation of the North and South is our major task. Through contacts and penance of our own personal lives, we need to raise the consciousness for our separated brothers and sisters in the North.
Cardinal Nicholas Cheong is extremely interested in not only Pyongyang diocese but the whole of North Korea too. The cardinal is also very interested in China because he always says the early Korean Church, in the 18th century, was established by lay Koreans, with help and learning from the Beijing Church. So my role is, in one sense, to be something like the first group of people that went to Beijing.
The role I intend to play is to be the eyes and ears of the cardinal. From my experiences, it is my job to keep him informed of the governance of the humanitarian aid and the general relationship between Caritas Corea and its North Korean counterpart. I'm just like (Saint) John the Baptist, who made way for Jesus. Someday I hope that the cardinal and the Korean Church will be able to do what I'm doing.
This year is Pyongyang diocese's 80th anniversary. As regional superior of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in Korea, which put in much effort to develop that diocese, what are your feelings and plans for that diocese?
Our old members went to Pyongyang in 1923, and that's why we are so interested in North Korea, even though many of us have never been to North Korea. Maryknoll in Korea began there, so I hope that some day we return to the North.
The important thing is to inform them that our Holy Father and the Church are extremely interested in them, because they really need help from someone. Where suffering is, Christ exists also in the place. So I want to be in union with those who have suffered in the North and those who also helped the North through dialogue and reconciliation.
What first brought you to Korea?
When I was in the seminary, I met a young Korean named John Chang Yik, now bishop of Chunchon and president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea. As young students, we grew up together. Due to his encouragement, I always wanted to come to Korea.
My whole life has been here and every day when I get up, I pray, "Jesus, please help me to be more like Koreans!" I can't change my appearance, my face, actions, anything like that. I'm always a foreigner here. I'd like to die here. My dream is to retire in North Korea, but all the dreams cannot come true. However, having a dream makes people healthy. Maybe I can open a few roads to the North. That would be my life's journey.
What motivates you to work for North Koreans?
When I first came to South Korea, there were many refugees (after the Korean War from 1950 to 1953) and times were very difficult economically. When I visited North Korea, I experienced the same. And then, I thought about how I can help North Koreans.
"Unconditional love" is my idea. Also, Maryknoll's root in Korea began there. So we will be returning to the place where our older Maryknoll brothers and sisters worked. So it's kind of an urge to help people that need help and at the same time return to our roots.
What have you been doing to support North Koreans?
I have been bringing medical equipment and things like medicine for tuberculosis since 1996. (Providing) Medical assistance is not a political action. It is really being interested in people regardless of what they practice or think.
Also, we support inoculation projects for children and projects for pregnant women with prenatal and postnatal care. Also for the aged people, we provide vitamins and education programs. And the works are gradually expanding. We bring presents like tractors, green house, shovels, fertilizer, seeds, bicycles and so on. So not only will they receive medicine but also those things they need in order to grow their own food.
After 10 years visiting North Korea, do you see any significant changes there?
You might say, "Two steps forward and one step back." There are changes economically. There are open markets and the situation has improved to the extent to start factories again. Also, China has sent many trucks. Every year, their greatest concern has been famine, but gradually there is progress. North Koreans are very industrious people, same as South Koreans.
Have you met North Koreans privately?
I have met lots of them, from the young to directors of hospitals, nurses, patients and farmers. I am as comfortable in the North as I am in South Korea. I can speak Korean and there are so many similarities between the North and the South. They are all Koreans. The ideology might be different, but basically their humanity is the same.
Also, I have met people who would say that they are Christians and Catholics. Some say that the Catholics in the North are not "real Catholics." But they didn't have the chance to practice their religion for a long time. I always mention to the Catholics that the Church has never forgotten them and Catholics in the South will join with them. Hopefully some day, we will be one. When the country becomes one, we can find out how many and what kind of people there are.
Caritas Corea has taken over leadership of Caritas Internationalis' North Korea Country Group. What do you think of this change?
Caritas Corea received the mandate for Caritas Internationalis' North Korea aid last November. The change is very important. It was a wonderful change for the South to have the mandate, because the North and the South are the same.
Also, now South Korea has financial capability. Previously, Caritas Corea was very generous to help North Korea through (Caritas in) Hong Kong and contributed much. When Hong Kong Caritas took the job, it was a breakthrough. Now we are going to the second level for aid and contact to North Korea.
Why should the international community help North Korea?
Simply, the international community has an obligation to help those less fortunate. North Korea is a country that needs help from outside. But we need to think of the kind of assistance that should be given. Now North Korea is interested in so-called development aid. But the Church is still very much interested in basic humanitarian aid.
One sad part now is donor fatigue. People have contributed for such a long time, and there are so many other issues like earthquake in Indonesia, tsunami. Resources are limited. So we have to raise the level of consciousness for North Korea.
How do you see the future of the international community's support for North Korea?
I'd like to be very hopeful. But it's going to be a bumpy and long road. But the fact is that when we get on the road, other countries like China, Russia and Japan are willing to make exchanges.
I think it's a very hopeful situation. It'll take time, though. I'm hopeful that the U.S. will send ranking officials to North Korea to continue dialogue with North Korea. There can be more dialogue between the North and the U.S. since nobody wants a war in the peninsula. The primary work we need to do is peace in Korea.
When we help North Korea, is there anything that we need to be especially aware of?
They have the so-called "Juche ideology" of self-support and self-reliance, and they are very independent. North Koreans are people of great self-respect. Because of the special situation there, we are asked to be sensitive when we try to help North Korea. Also they are very skeptical of economically developed countries, and don't want to be an economic slave because of their cheap labor.
I believe the important thing is to do it "together." When we see bamboo trees, their roots are interlocked, but the bamboo trees are growing in all different directions. That's something we need to think about with the relationship between the North and the South. Aside from the Catholic Church, Buddhists and Protestants are giving a lot of aid to North Korea. The approach should be the idea of "hand in hand." So with the solidarity of the groups, lots of things can be done "with one heart and working together."
For the reunification of the two Koreas, what does the Korean Catholic Church need to prepare and keep in mind?
The reunification hopefully will happen. But before the reunification of the two Koreas, we must have reconciliation. That's part of what I would like to do as a tool or agent. The Catholic Church has been preparing for the reconciliation. Every year, the Church celebrates a Sunday to spread awareness and pray for the reconciliation of the two Koreas. (Editor's note: The Korean Church celebrates a Prayer Day for Reconciliation and Unity of Korean People on the Sunday nearest to June 25, the day the Korean War broke out in 1950.)
Also, two major groups -- the bishops' Committee for the Reconciliation of Korean People and Caritas Corea -- are functioning very well. The committee and Caritas Corea need to come together. And with other groups we need to see what can be done in a practical way to help North Korea with regard to aid.