North Korea could in time have its first canonized saint, since last year the death of the Bishop of Pyongyang, who was disappeared by the government in 1949, was formally acknowledged by the Vatican.
Shortly after the aknowledgement of his death, the Korean bishops' conference asked the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for a 'nihil obstat' to the opening of the cause of beatification for Bishop Francis Hong Yong-ho, as well as 80 of his companions.
Bishop Hong was born in Pyongyang in 1906, and was ordained a priest of the local Church in 1933, while Korea was occupied by Japan.
In 1944 he was consecrated a bishop and appointed vicar apostolic of Pyongyang – signifying that the local Church was a mission territory – and the following year, when World War II ended, Korea was divided into a northern zone, occupied by the Soviet Union, and a southern zone, occupied by the U.S.
The two zones would not be united, and in 1948 the communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea were formally established. Many Christians fled the north; Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, Archbishop Emeritus of Seoul, told 30 Days in 2006 that by 1950, North Korea had killed or disappeared 166 priests and religious.
After 1949, when Bishop Hong was imprisoned and then disappeared, the Vatican's official yearbook continued to acknowledge him as head of the Church in Pyongyang, albeit as “missing,” until 2013, when he would have been 106.
Cardinal Cheong said the long-time acknowledgement of the centenarian as missing and not officially dead, even though nothing was known of him after his forced disappearance, was “a gesture by the Holy See to point to the tragedy that the Church in Korea has suffered and is still going through.”
The Holy See had even gone so far as to elevate, in 1962, the Vicariate Apostolic of Pyongyang, effectively suppressed by the North Korean regime, to the status of the Diocese of Pyongyang.
The 2013 acknowledgement of Bishop Hong's death allowed for the opening of his cause of beatification.
Bishop Hong's beatification cause is among the factors in the Church of Korea's advocacy for the reunification of the peninsula.
During his trip this week to South Korea, Pope Francis has taken the opportunity to often address the issue of reunification and reconciliation, including asking the young people gathered at the Solmoe shrine for a silent prayer for reunification.
In recent years, the Archbishop of Seoul has been appointed apostolic administrator of the Pyongyang diocese; the current cardinal archbishop, Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, has advocated the reconciliation between the Koreas since his 2012 advent as shepherd of Seoul.
He chose to hold his installation Mass June 25, the 62nd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War; ever since, he has made reconciliation and peace the key themes of his episcopacy.
According to Vatican Radio’s “Documentation Service” issued before the papal trip to Korea, Cardinal Yeom was able to make a short visit to the Kaesong Industrial Region, a 25 square mile zone in North Korea where both North and South Koreans are allowed to work, in May, 2014.
The development of Kaesong is the most recent project of rapprochement between the Koreas, which have remained technically at war since the signing of the 1953 armistice.
Cardinal Yeom visited the symbol of cooperation between North and South Korea, meeting workers there and leaving them with a message of hope and courage.
Vatican Radio also reported the words of Fr. Timoteo Lee Eun-hyung, a member of the Special Commission for Reconciliation, a group established by the Korean bishops to foster reconciliation and to provide assistance to North Korea.
“The most important goal of our commission is that of the evangelization of the North Korea, where there is no religious freedom,” Fr. Lee said to Vatican Radio.
He explained that “first of all, we try to find a way to exchange at least information, in order to share the love we have, the one for the other. And then we give assistance to the people from North Korea.”
It can be hoped that the goal of evangelization of the North will be advanced by Pope Francis' Aug. 16 beatification of 124 martyrs from across Korea.
And should the beatification of Bishop Hong advance, the North Koreans can be assured of having one more intercessor in heaven.