Duties and roles were shared and carried out within the established committee. The Foreign Ministry was to handle aspects related to the papal visit while the United Front Department (UFD) was in charge of the religious nature of it. Coincidentally, I was part of the latter organization. However, the attitude of the workers in this department left little to be desired. They spent the day reading books, chatting, and simply waiting to go home. Were a member of the Foreign Ministry to act in such a manner, they would be severely reprimanded immediately.
After seeing this behavior continue for a few days, I asked them why they didn’t work and prepare for the task ahead. They answered thus: “Kim Jong-il has already concluded that the Pope’s visit to the DPRK would be problematic domestically. We can’t really make any more progress; however, the problem is that this was instructed to us by Kim Il-sung so we have no choice but to stay here. Try to smooth this over with the Foreign Office.”
Ultimately, with all power and authority residing with Kim Jong-il, the Pope’s visit to the DPRK remained impossible. Despite this, I believed that a papal visit to Pyongyang would go a long way to alleviating the country’s diplomatic isolation.
Nevertheless, the department in which I worked was operating in such a way and said, “If the Pope comes to the DPRK, the United Front Department and the State Security Department will have to consider the following things. Currently, the Foreign Ministry has no idea whether there are any Christians in the country or not – moreover, if there are any, we have no clue how many there might be. If the Pope does visit, and the number of Roman Catholics in the country increases, who will then be responsible for this?”
Since birth, I had been taught that religion was bad. This anti-religious attitude was reinforced through North Korean movies such as Choi Hak-shin’s Family and Songhwangdang. If there were Christians in the DPRK, I could not believe that they would dare to say so.
At that time, North Korean Catholics were supposed to be taken to the Vatican as it had demanded, “If there are any real Catholics in the DPRK, bring them here.” The Ministry of People’s Security had searched the resident registration lists and found those that had declared their faith before the Korean War broke out. In doing so, the Korean Catholic Association (KCA) thus found an old grandmother. The KCA went to her and asked whether or not she still believed in God. The grandmother assured them, “How can you ask if I believe in god when we have both the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) here?”
“You may speak freely. We are looking for someone that still believes in god so that we can send them to the Vatican City in Rome. If we are able to find a devout believer, it will be of great help to both the Workers’ Party and the nation.”
The grandmother replied warmly, “When God enters someone heart, he never leaves.” The party worker asked the old lady how she had managed to maintain her faith over all these years, so she took them to her house. It was then easy to see by the way things were arranged and the unmistakable atmosphere that this was clearly the place of a religious person. Having confirmed that the lady was still a believer, the party worker said to that she should visit the Vatican for the benefit of the revolution.
The old lady looked to the sky and replied: “God, I have prayed hard my whole life and this is how you have rewarded your faithful.” The party worker tried to remind her that her trip to the Vatican was for the benefit of the revolution, but it was no use. She was convinced that she had been called by god. However, she still pleaded with them not to tell her son as he was as yet unaware that she had prayed here every night.
The old lady thus followed the North Korean delegation to the Vatican and there testified that the DPRK had both religious freedom and people maintained personal chapels in their homes. In front of the Pope, she expressed her reverence for the Catholic Church. Those in the Vatican declared that they were able to see the genuine faith of a believer in the eyes of the old lady.
Through this, the WPK had inadvertently reduced the level of fear associated with religion. This is why those associated with the United Front Department were uncomfortable with the invitation that was being proposed to the Pope. If he were to visit the DPRK, it might spark a Catholic upsurge in the country. Thus, the committee arranged to work on a the Pope’s invitation to Pyongyang was quietly dissolved a mere two months after it had been inaugurated.