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A lark that almost changed the world

HONG KONG (SE): It began as a lark, but it could have changed the world, Victor Gaetan wrote in the National Catholic Register on April 28 in telling the story of Maryknoll Father Laurence Murphy who, when walking in New York in 1988 with a Korean-American friend, Yeomin Yoon, just decided to drop into the office of the Permanent Mission to the United Nations (UN) of North Korea, in Father Murphy’s own words, “Just for a lark.”
Gaetan quotes him as saying, “The staff seemed amazed to see us. I asked for the ambassador and explained that I wanted to invite him to dinner.”
Not long afterwards, Father Murphy received a call from the ambassador and invited him to come to Seton Hall University Asia Centre, of which he was president at the time, and speak with the students.
“He told me that after three years in the United States of America (US) I was the first person to invite him for dinner,” Father Murphy chuckled, but it was not the last meeting he had with the lonely ambassador.
The rest, as it were, is history, as in the wash up, he, together with Yoon, was invited to visit North Korea on a UN mission in May 1989. A surprise delegate from Hong Kong was on the mission as well, the current bishop of the city, John Cardinal John Tong Hon.
At the time the Caritas Desk for North Korea was located in Hong Kong. It has since moved to Seoul.
Father Murphy and Yoon were guests of Hwang Jang-yop in Pyongyang, a high level official close to Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader of the country, Kim Jong-un.
Hwang was president of Pyongyang’s top university and it was he who had developed the policy of self-reliance that had become the basis of Kim’s rule.
Hwang took the two to a church at their request, but of course they did not meet a priest, but they did manage to establish a relationship between Hwang’s Kim Il-sung University and Seton Hall and arrange student exchanges between the two.
They wanted to invite Hwang to visit the US as well, but Washington would not allow the trip.
Father Murphy visited Pyongyang five times in all. The last was in 1995 and Hwang told him that it was vital that he develop links with political and religious figures in the US.
The next time the two met was in Washington. Hwang had been planning a coup against his leader in Pyongyang, but got wind he had been betrayed while he was in Japan and headed instead to the US.
In 1994, Jimmy Carter visited Kim in Pyongyang, but the North Korean leader died soon after the American president left and things were destined to change rapidly.
Yoon explained, “Kim Il-sung had got to a position where he was interested in rapprochement, which President Carter sensed and acted on. Hwang wanted face to face communication. If the US had allowed him to visit in 1989, I believe things may have been different.”
Father Murphy concurred with Yoon’s opinion. “There were other forces in Washington against rapprochement, but we tried,” he said.
Pope John Paul II was part of the act as well, keeping tabs on the state of play, soliciting in-person or written briefings.
It was a lark that could have resulted in a radically different relationship between the powers that be in North Korea today and the rest of the world.
But Maryknoll has not lost its contact with the country to the north of the Demilitarised Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula into two sovereign territories.
Father Gerard Hammond, a veteran of the Korean mission since 1960, has crossed the Demilitarised Zone at least 50 times as a volunteer with the Eugene Bell Foundation on a medical mission to treat tuberculosis.
“I’m sometimes the last person saying good-bye and they know I’m a Catholic priest. People say, ‘Thank you for giving me life. Thank you for giving me hope’,” he recalled.
“They know who we are. They know who we represent. The boxes of aid are all clearly marked, from the cardinal or a priest who donates it,” he explained, adding, “Although we never talk about politics or religion—unless asked—the gifts are understood.”
Father Hammond considers the mission as having a wider purpose. “We are apostles of peace,” he said. “That’s what the Catholic Church hopes for on the peninsula: peace and reconciliation between north and south.”
He acknowledged Father Murphy, in particular, for creating an opening for the Church in North Korea.
In 2014, when Pope Francis visited Seoul, Father Hammond had his opportunity to brief him on his mission to the north.
Father Murphy’s lark shows a hand of friendship can be stronger than the glare of disdain.

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