in the foothills of Mt. Songak-san
near Gaeseong City in North Korea
This is an ancient Buddhist temple, said to be the first Cheontae
[Ch: Tiantai, Heavenly-Platform] Sect monastery in Korea. It was destroyed
by fire in the 17th century and the site was further damaged in the
Korean War, but was reconstructed in 2005 by the authorities of North
Korea with assistance and advice from the South's revived Cheontae
Sect. A large-scale ceremony was held here in June 2007, with some
South Korean attendees and media-coverage, as these photos show.
North has Faith in Buddhist Cash
an article by Jack Kim, Reuters, June 13th 2007, in the Hong Kong Standard, quoted on the Jogye Order site.
In a rare nod to religion, communist North Korea has welcomed 500 Buddhist monks and followers from the South to
a Kaesong temple dating from the 11th century when the town, just north of what is now the demilitarized zone, was
capital of a unified peninsula. The visit offered an unusual glimpse of the hermit state where references to the divine -
at least in the official media - are normally limited to Kim Il Sung, who became the reclusive state's eternal president
and on his death in 1994, Kim Jong Il, his son and the current leader.
North Korean officials were quick to stress that this month's nine-hour visit to the picturesque Ryongtong temple
on the outskirts of Kaesong was strictly religious fare.
"We are opening the door for pilgrimages to answer the wish of Buddhist believers in the South," said Ri Chang
Dok of the North's Council of National Reconciliation.
The pilgrimage marking the restoration of the temple was the first in a series that will see more than 2,000 South
Korean Buddhists travel across the heavily fortified border that has divided Korea for more than half a century.
"There won't be any sightseeing," Ri insisted.
North Korea watchers and critics say the hardline Pyongyang government persecutes religious followers and
the only practices tolerated are carefully choreographed displays for outsiders. Not so, said the council's vice-
chairman, Jong Tok Gi, after a Buddhist service at Ryongtong. "We have freedom of religion."
But when a North Korean Buddhist leader spoke, his words had the clear ring of politics and Pyongyang's official
obsession with one day ending the divide on the Korean peninsula.
"I have no doubt that if we make this pilgrimage a regular event and allow South Korean believers to come to
the temple, North-South cooperation will deepen and that will open a shortcut to the unification of the fatherland,"
said Sim Sang Jin, vice chairman of the North's Korea Buddhists' Federation.
The North Korean Buddhists, with full heads of hair and colorful costumes, looked anything but the typical monks of
the South with their shaven heads and austere gray robes.
Despite Ri's assurances that this was a strictly spiritual affair, the visitors' buses made several stops at tourist sites
in the cash-strapped state to give them the chance to buy souvenirs. "Come on, go and buy something," a North
Korean guide urged his visitors, pointing to stalls where young women in traditional costume offered goods ranging
from fake Viagra to books of teachings by the country's father-and- son leaders - all for US dollars.
"We're not going to hide anything," said another guide, adding: "We have the discipline, the intelligence and the will"
to make ties work. All that was needed was for the wealthy South to deliver on its commitments to invest in the North.
The birthplace of the small Chontae Buddhist sect, Ryongtong was raised from the rubble of a 17th century fire in
2005 at a cost of 5 billion won (HK$42 million) donated by its South Korean chapter. "Kaesong was the seat of
the Goryeo dynasty [918-1392] for 500 years," said Ju Jung San, a senior monk from the South. "It should now
be the place of national love to lay the ground for unification."
With such high aims, an indignant Ri dismissed criticism that charging each visitor 170,000 won for the short trip
- less than 30 minutes from the demilitarized zone - was excessive.