Long consigned to the dustbin of history are the days when Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of Asia.” The DPRK’s official disposition toward Christianity, however, has not prevented senior religious figures from engaging with the North Korean government.
Last week a high ranking official of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan bishop of Volokolamsk Hilarion Alfeyev paid a visit to Pyongyang. Metropolitan Hilarion, in addition to his clerical function, is in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church’s international relations.
According to a Church press release, Metropolitan Hilarion met with Kim Yong Sae, vice chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. A ranking official from the DPRK’s foreign ministry, as well as Russian ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora, were also present at the summit between the Russian churchman and North Korean officials.
Kim Yong Dae accepted a gift from Hilarion to be given to Kim Jong Un, although it’s unclear what exactly the gift was.
The Orthodox Church enjoys a tiny, admittedly token presence in the DPRK. In the whole of North Korea there is one Orthodox parish, the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, located in the DPRK’s capital.
The parish, which opened in 2006 after years of negotiations with Pyongyang, falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia, one of the 14 major geographic divisions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There, Metropolitan Hilarion celebrated a full Orthodox worship service.
The establishment of an Orthodox parish in North Korea, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s maintenance of good relations with Pyongyang, were reported to have served as a model for the Church’s efforts to promote greater freedom for the faithful in China, where Metropolitan Hilarion also visited during his tour of East Asia.
Indeed, Hilarion’s visit to the DPRK did not occur in isolation, but rather appears to have been part of a wider effort at outreach across the Korean peninsula. Prior to his visit to Pyongyang, Metropolitan Hilarion visited Seoul, where he was received by Russia’s ambassador to the ROK, Andrei Kulik.
In the South Korean capital, Hilarion participated in a roundtable on current issues in the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Hilarion also met with officials from the South Korean foreign ministry.
Eastern Orthodoxy’s short history in Korea is intertwined with the earliest days of diplomatic ties between Korea and Russia. Russian missionaries spearheaded evangelization efforts following the establishment of official relations between the Choson Dynasty and the Russian Empire in 1884.
The late arrival of Orthodox missionaries (compared with Catholics and Protestants), as well as the domestic fallout for the Church in light of the Russian Revolution in 1917, largely snuffed out Russian Orthodoxy’s inchoate evangelization of the Korean Peninsula.
Orthodox missionary efforts nevertheless made a lasting mark on the Korean peninsula’s religious landscape. Today the ROK is home to the Korean Orthodox Church. Though rooted in the work of Russian missionaries, the Korean Orthodox Church is currently under the ultimate authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a jurisdiction separate from the Patriarchate of Moscow.
Hilarion’s visit to the DPRK… appears to have been part of a wider effort at outreach across the Korean peninsula
The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, has taken an increasingly active role in contemporary Russian foreign policy, maintaining an interest in countries where parishes and territories that fall under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate exist. With the establishment of a Moscow-affiliated parish in North Korea, the Church henceforth has a vested interest in the DPRK.
Even as North Korea was one of several stops Metropolitan Hilarion made during his travels through East Asia, the Moscow Patriarchate has considered it important for the Church to participate in the Russian Federation’s growing ties with the DPRK.
Last August the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, indicated that he was planning on sending a delegation of church officials to the DPRK in order to commemorate 70 years of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Pyongyang.
Given the blurring of the separation of church and state in modern Russia and the lack of actual religious freedom within North Korea, the Russian Church’s role in the DPRK is potentially less about the Gospel and more about acting as a means of advancing Russian diplomacy in Pyongyang.
In strictly religious terms, Orthodox believers in the whole of the Korean peninsula number a few thousand at most, and are overwhelmingly found in South Korea. A visit from a senior Russian cleric to either North Korea or the ROK, therefore, barely reverberates among the public.
Yet even if the Church cannot play upon the religious sentiments of any notable portion of the population of Koreans, members of the church hierarchy are able to subtly advance Russia’s relations with the governments both Koreas.
Given the fact that the Korean Orthodox Church does not fall under Moscow’s jurisdiction, the Moscow Patriarchate could have possibly sent Hilarion to the ROK in addition to North Korea so as to promote Moscow’s balanced diplomacy in Korea.
The Kremlin’s policies toward the Korean peninsula are based on the concept of “equidistance,” which describes the Russian Federation’s attempts to maintain equally strong ties with both Pyongyang and Seoul.
It is difficult to discern to what extent the upper echelons of the clerical hierarchy act as men of the cloth versus men of the Kremlin
Nevertheless, Metropolitan Hilarion’s visit to South Korea may have also been driven in part by issues within the Orthodox Church itself. Later this month Bartholomew I, the head of the Constantinople Patriarchate, will visit South Korea.
The patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow have recently experienced friction over events unfolding in Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s maintenance of working ties with the North Korean government may be born out of pragmatism needed for the Church to operate in a religious landscape as that in North Korea.
Yet given the tight-knit relationship between church and state in Moscow, and the minuscule number of believers in North Korea, it is difficult to discern to what extent the upper echelons of the clerical hierarchy act as men of the cloth versus men of the Kremlin in the Church’s interactions with foreign governments.
Metropolitan Hilarion’s visit to Pyongyang, in any case, demonstrates that the Russian Orthodox Church is willing to continue engaging with North Korea beyond the establishment of an official Church presence in the DPRK.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian embassy in the DPRK
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