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New travel restrictions for North Korea put priest’s “silent” ministry on hold


Courtesy of Gerard Hammond

John Burger - published on 09/02/17

Father Gerard Hammond and others will need a special passport each time they want to enter communist country.

In spite of all the missiles lobbed by North Korea in recent months, its threat against U.S. territory, and the perception of the communist country as a place no American would dare set foot in, several Americans have been going there on a regular basis in hopes of improving relations with the North Korean people.

But those unofficial ambassadors now have an extra hurdle to jump over, in addition to those imposed by Pyongyang. Following the death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier after 17 months in North Korean custody, the U.S. State Department on Friday began prohibiting Americans from traveling as tourists to the North and will require others, such as aid workers and journalists, to get a special one-time passport authorizing each trip.

One humanitarian aid worker affected by the new restrictions is Father Gerard Hammond, a Maryknoll priest, who has been to North Korea more than 50 times trying to help tuberculosis patients. The 84-year-old priest from Philadelphia is not sure he’ll be able to use the $100,000 he was recently awarded by the Knights of Columbus to build facilities to give terminal TB sufferers a place to “die with dignity.”

“I can’t conceive that our country would prohibit humanitarian aid,” Father Hammond told the Washington Post. “No country in the world does that.” The newspaper explained that Father Hammond and others are “concerned that the additional layer of bureaucracy — on top of international sanctions that have made it hard to send medicine and equipment into North Korea, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the North Korean system — will make an effort that is already difficult close to impossible.”

Maryknoll had operated throughout Korea since 1922, but after the civil war of the early 1950s, North Korea banned outside religions, viewing them as an existential threat to its personality cult, the Post explained:

But when a devastating famine arrived in the mid-1990s, North Korea allowed outside organizations, including religious ones, in to help with the humanitarian crisis. Hammond first went to North Korea in 1995 to assist with the famine relief. …  He then became involved with the ­Eugene Bell Foundation, an American-run organization that has treated more than a quarter-million tuberculosis patients in North Korea. It is run by Stephen Linton, also Philadelphia-born, who comes from a line of Southern Presbyterian missionaries who first arrived in Korea in 1895. A decade ago, the foundation began focusing on multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, a particularly pernicious form of infection that does not respond to standard TB medication. This requires an 18-month course of treatment; about three-quarters of treated North Koreans recover.

Others affected by the new restrictions include 10 U.S. passport holders who teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), an American-run private institution, and George Vitale, a retired New York City police officer who introduced taekwondo, the South Korean martial art, to North Korea, and who has promoted taekwondo as a form of “ping pong diplomacy.”

Father Hammond, who is now the superior of the Korean mission of Maryknoll, helps to keep track of patients’ progress with the drugs. He cannot preach while he’s north of the DMZ, but he hopes his actions speak for themselves.

“In the early Church, they didn’t have crucifixes or Roman collars or Bibles,” he pointed out, “but people knew they were Christian because they treated people with kindness.”

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