Editor’s Note: As President Donald Trump convenes an unusual national security meeting on North Korea this week at the White House with the full Senate, Register correspondent Victor Gaetan explores how two priests, a Korean-American professor and a former high-level North Korean official struggled in intersecting ways to promote dialogue between the United States and North Korea.
As military tension with North Korea escalates, it is good to listen to those building bridges, quietly, anonymously, knowing God favors the peacemaker.
When Pope Francis visited South Korea two years ago, he met with 14 Maryknoll missionaries, including Father Gerald Hammond, 85, who has lived on the peninsula since 1960.
“North Korea-tuberculosis,” were the Holy Father’s words of greeting to Father Hammond as he squeezed the priest’s arm, summarizing concisely an ecumenical medical mission of over 20 years.
The energetic priest spoke by phone to the Register, describing his ongoing work in a country of 24 million people shrouded in mystery. (South Korea has twice as many people.)
He also confirmed an intriguing story of how an extraordinary confrere, Maryknoll Father Lawrence Murphy, 98, former president of Seton Hall University, forged a unique partnership with North Korea’s Kim Il-sung University in the late 1980s and came close to facilitating direct relations between the two countries … if only to fall short.
Gifts of Life
Father Hammond — known as “Father Ham Je Do,” his Korean name — was in North Korea in November and will return in May. His twice-annual visits are part of a medical delegation providing treatment to more than 1,000 people suffering multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).
He has traveled to North Korea more than 50 times as a volunteer for the Eugene Bell Foundation, named in honor of a 19th-century American Presbyterian missionary to Korea.
Although tuberculosis has been eradicated in much of the world, it remains a devastating problem in developing countries, including some parts of China and India.
“TB is highly contagious and spreads via airborne transmission,” explained the priest. “So in rural North Korea, in winter, when a whole family is living in one room, if someone has a cold and is run down, and a relative with TB coughs, then the infection is quickly transmitted.”
The medical mission brings six months’ worth of sustenance and medicine (imported through China due to the U.S. embargo against North Korea, which Father Hammond contends only hurts the poor) for patients undergoing a two-year treatment; they also diagnose new cases, working outside, despite cold and rain, because the disease is so contagious.
Father Hammond always has the same job: collecting sputum coughed up by patients and putting the samples in vials.
He explains soberly, “For the people, it’s life or death. Without our help, they will die, because other treatment hasn’t worked.”
Apostles of Peace
During the three weeks on site, the delegation is accompanied at all times by government “minders,” close by even when the delegation sleeps.
“Everything is completely controlled,” said the priest. “Even our minders are regularly changed, because contact with foreigners is carefully limited.”
He continued, “The doctors we work with have traveled extensively, but while they are away, their families are held hostage. If one of those doctors defected, the whole family would be sent to the gulag.”
What is most gratifying is participating in “graduations,” held after successful two-year treatments, said Father Hammond.
“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 gifts and aid] are all clearly marked, from the cardinal or a priest who donates it.”
He added, “Although we never talk about politics or religion — unless asked — the [source of] gifts are understood.”
Father Hammond considers the missions 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. Father Murphy joined the order after serving during World War II as a U.S. Navy officer, with 18 major naval engagements under his belt.
A Daring Man of the Cloth
To listen to Father Murphy tell it, his high-level relationship with North Korea began as a lark.
In his modest living quarters at Maryknoll’s pagoda-capped flagstone center in Ossining, New York, he recounted to the Register how he and a Korean-American friend were walking in Midtown Manhattan in 1988 when they noticed a sign for the “Permanent Mission to the United Nations of North Korea” and decided to find the office in the indicated building.
He remembered, “The staff seemed amazed to see us. I asked for the ambassador and explained that I wanted to invite him to dinner” at Seton Hall University, where Father Murphy directed the university’s Asia Center, having served as president in 1979-1980.
Not long after, Father Murphy received a call from North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N., who accepted the American’s dinner invitation.
“He told me after three years in the U.S., I was the first person to invite him for dinner!” said the priest with a laugh, adding that the two got together several more times.
Ambassador Kim invited Father Murphy and professor Yeomin Yoon (the friend who accompanied him into the U.N. mission) to visit North Korea in late May 1989. Father John Tong from Hong Kong, now Cardinal Tong, joined, too.
The Americans flew to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, via Beijing.
The two men were guests of Hwang Jang-yop, a high-level North Korean communist, very close to dictator Kim II-sung.
Hwang was also former president of the country’s biggest university, Kim Il-sung University, named after the Soviet-trained dictator who helped establish the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 and aligned it with the Soviet Union, which controlled the north above the 38th Parallel after the Kingdom of Japan was evicted in 1945.
Kim Il-sung declared war on U.S.-controlled South Korea in 1950. He was still in power when Father Murphy and professor Yoon visited.
The national ideology Kim Il-Sung taught as the basis for his rule, jutche (self-reliance), was developed by Hwang Jang-yop — that’s how significant he was.
“We asked to see a church, and we saw a church. It wasn’t that big. A Catholic church, they said, but we didn’t meet any priests. I don’t think there were any,” mused Father Murphy.
The territory of North Korea, especially Pyongyang, was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” before the war. It was a flourishing center of, mainly, Protestant Christianity. Kim Il-sung’s parents were both Presbyterians: His maternal grandfather was a minister, and his father had gone to missionary school — a legacy he viciously turned on.
Ministers, priests, missionaries and women religious were accused of being imperialists and murdered or exiled. Churches were bombed or repurposed for secular use. Most Christians fled, among the 1.5 million who escaped North Korea between 1945 and 1953, when the Korean War finally ended.
Today, no one knows how many Christians are secret believers in North Korea, although some estimate between 200,000 and 400,000; a small fraction are Catholics.
Happily, Father Murphy and Yoon accomplished the purpose of their trip: establishing an academic link in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung University, which would bring North Koreans to Seton Hall University and create a unique link between the two countries.
Witness to Tiananmen
Returning to the U.S. via Beijing June 2, 1989, Father Murphy and professor Yoon landed in a tragic historical moment.
Beginning in April and throughout May, a standoff between students and police had spread beyond the capital city and became the largest public protest in communist China’s history, centered in Tiananmen Square.
Father Murphy, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, had arranged dinner with the president of Beijing University, which had an existing exchange agreement with Seton Hall at the time. Between 1980 and 1995, the priest sometimes served as an adviser to the Holy See on China.
The Maryknoll priest remembered asking the president about the ongoing demonstrations. “He said, ‘We have to settle that quickly.’ The very next morning, Beijing University’s vice president called at about 5am. ‘It’s terrible! The army is shooting. It’s very dangerous. The government wants all foreigners to stay in their hotels.’”
Yoon told the Register he borrowed a bike and went out to look around: “Father Murphy told me, ‘Don’t go out of the hotel,’ but I was so curious. When he fell asleep, I gave a $20 bill to the hotel clerk to borrow his bicycle. So I rode around the big Beijing.”
“I saw the aftermath of revolution: blood and a lot of bikes flattened by tanks. I was so angry,” said Yoon. “I didn’t tell him [that I left]. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Father Murphy went to North Korea five times, even traveling in the hermit kingdom with Father Hammond.
One thing remained consistent, said Father Murphy: From his first to his last encounter with Hwang, the official was eager to develop ties with the United States.
“On my last trip, in 1995, Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, had taken power,” Father Murphy said. “The last night I was there, Hwang Jang-yop invited me to dinner at his home, which was very unusual. He told me it was very important for him to develop ties with Americans — political and religious figures. I told him I would help. “
The priest continued, “The next time I saw him was, indeed, in Washington, D.C., when he testified to Congress years later, as a defector.” Not just any defector — the highest-ranking defector from North Korea, ever.
“Hwang Jang-yop was planning a coup, but he got word in Japan that he had been betrayed. So, on his way back to Pyongyang, in Beijing, he walked into the South Korean Embassy and defected with a top assistant,” explained the priest-statesman, who sent me to professor Yoon for more details.
In his Seton Hall office, a dapper Yeomin Yoon looks more financier than finance professor. Wearing a pale pink wool jacket and square gold cufflinks, he remembers his voyage with Father Murphy to North Korea like it was yesterday.
“Father Murphy and Hwang Jang-yop got along well from the start. They started with philosophy and moved to metaphysics, while I was mesmerized by the food,” the professor said with a laugh.
According to Yoon, Hwang quickly agreed to academic relations between Seton Hall and Kim Il-sung University, but he wanted to explore how to “open up” in a wider way, too.
Yoon said Father Murphy went to work on the project as soon as he was back in the States. “Father Murphy is very well connected. He immediately went to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, Richard Solomon, but Solomon thought Hwang Jang-yop was too high-ranking, and a visit for him to Washington would be premature. He approved bringing some of Hwang’s deputies.”
So three deputies from the Juche Institute in Pyongyang arrived in 1991. “They were curious about everything. Academically, they were anxious to establish friendly relationships, but really, they were interested in the American people and all sectors of life,” recalled Yoon.
“The Juche deputies embodied Hwang Jang-yop’s attitude, ‘We have to open up; open up.’ They were anxious to explore all possibilities, including art exhibits, for example,” said Yoon.
Hardliners Versus Moderates
It wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In 1993, at the height of tension between the Clinton administration and Kim Il-sung, a five-person delegation from Seton Hall, including Father Murphy and Yoon, got as far as Beijing, but were denied access to North Korea by the government. Their invitation had been revoked.
“It was an example of conflict between moderates and hardliners. The military was hardline; Hwang’s side wanted us to come. His allies flew to catch up with us in Beijing, but missed us by one day,” remembered Yoon. “We were already flying back to the U.S.”
Yoon explained that Father Murphy was also coordinating with the Carter Center, where a good friend of his, Ambassador Harry Barnes, former ambassador to Romania, where the dictator had a special relationship with Kim Il-sung, was advising President Jimmy Carter on human rights.
In 1994, Jimmy Carter decided it was essential for him to go to Pyongyang, based on his interpretation of how close the two countries were to war and how sincerely the North Koreans wanted to be heard.
Kim Il-sung died soon after Carter’s visit — and many things changed for the relationship with Seton Hall, in Yoon’s view.
“For one thing, Kim Jong-il did not seem to trust Hwang Jang-yop, his former professor, or his approach — the idea of opening up. We arranged a joint letter between Seton Hall and the Carter Center to invite Hwang Jang-yop to the U.S., but it was too late,” Yoon said.
The professor continued, “Kim Il-sung had gotten to a position where he was interested in rapprochement, which President Carter sensed and acted on. Hwang wanted face-to-face communication. If the U.S. had allowed his visit in 1989, I believe things might have been different.”
Father Murphy agreed: “There were other forces in Washington against rapprochement, but we tried.”
And all along, according to Father Murphy and Father Hammond, Pope John Paul II kept tabs on the state of play. By soliciting in-person or written briefings, he was able to live through the personal, intellectual and emotional encounters of his priestly brothers.
‘Pray For Us’
The division of Korea into north and south is a legacy of World War II and the Yalta Conference’s practice of dividing countries between victors, overlaid by Soviet aggression and the resulting frozen conflict, never settled through a peace treaty — to date, a truce governs the North-South stalemate.
Meanwhile, Father Hammond says he always looks forward, despite tensions higher today than in decades: “Pray for us,” he asked, “and for our work in North Korea, that good comes of it.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine
the Washington Examiner.