The Roman Catholic Church of South Korea has started training priests to serve in North Korea, a country criticized by the United States and others for stamping out religion, for the first time in about 40 years.
"It's not something North Korea wants us to do. We are doing this with an eye toward the future when the two Koreas unify," Monsignor Matthew Hwang In-kuk, the Episcopal vicar of the Pyongyang Diocese, said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.
Communist North Korea, which Church officials estimated had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War, does not allow priests to be permanently stationed in the country.
The five candidates began studies a few days ago for the priesthood, Monsignor Hwang said. The Church plans to recruit a new group each year.
It will take about 10 years to complete preparations and even then, they may not be allowed into the North.
Priests from the South do occasionally visit the hermit state, usually to accompany the delivery of aid or the start of a humanitarian project, and a visiting priest reportedly celebrated mass in Pyongyang when Pope John Paul II died.
There used to be about 20 priests in the Pyongyang diocese, which was incorporated into the Seoul diocese in 1970. The priests worked in the South but only seven of the group are still active, including Monsignor Hwang, who was born in Pyongyang in 1936 and fled North Korea during the Korean War at the age of 14.
"At the time when the Pyongyang diocese was incorporated into the Seoul diocese, it was a precondition for priests like myself to go back as soon as the two Koreas unify," he said.
The same applies to the five who just entered training for the priesthood, who are not been given any special preparation for serving in one of the world's most isolated states.