Unusually for a bishop, there is apparently only one photograph in existence of Bishop Hong, taken, perhaps, in March 1944, when he was first appointed to the Apostolic Vicariate of Pyongyang as its Vicar Apostolic. According to Wikipedia, he “was imprisoned by the Communist regime of Kim Il-sung in 1949 and later disappeared.”
Nobody simply ‘disappears’. There has to be an underlying story. In the case of Bishop Hong, the clues lie in his country’s politics at the time of his vanishing into the unknown. Although concrete information is hard to find, it seems that Hong was one of 166 priests and religious arrested in 1949, of whom little or nothing has since been heard. Since the Korean War, the North has not had a resident priest. This year, the Korean bishops asked the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints to open the cause of beatification of Hong and his companions, whom they describe as martyrs.
Korea is unique in its Christian history insofar as it was self-evangelised in 1603 after Yi Gwang-jeong, a Korean diplomat, returned from Beijing carrying several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China. Catholic missionaries arrived in the country only in 1794. However in the intervening centuries, many thousands of Christians of all denominations have died for their beliefs, often with appalling cruelty.
In March 1949, Kim Il-Sung visited Stalin in Moscow, putting increasing pressure on the Kremlin to grant permission to ‘liberate’ the South. The Korean War lasted from 25 June 1950 until 27 July 1953 and was responsible an estimated 2,550,000 deaths on all sides. It is difficult to find accurate figures, but it is well known that the Communist Party killed thousands of people for political reasons. Comparatively little independent information filtered out of North Korea about the Kim regime's purges, executions, and concentration and forced labour camps. What is clear is that, in 1949, Kim’s hope was that, by targeting Christian leaders and eliminating all signs of Christianity in North Korea, he might thereby eradicate the Church’s opposition to Communism and ensure his total control of the Korean Peninsula.
Cardinal Cheong recalls, "Before 1949 in North Korea there were 55,000 Catholics. When the persecution was unleashed many of them fled, but many were killed. Today there are some who say that there are still 1,000 Catholics. Others say that there could be 3,000. But there is no way of knowing for sure." In fact, Cardinal Cheong’s estimate might be over-generous: some sources claim that the ‘real’ Catholics in North Korea number no more than 200 and that these are mostly very elderly. Certainly, although the Church is very much a persecuted, ‘underground’ community, there are constant heroic acts of faith. Lord David Alton, for instance, tells of a ruined church where someone daily leaves fresh flowers even though soldiers will subsequently remove them. The present regime allows priests to enter the country, but on the condition, Cardinal Cheong explains, that ‘they bring aid.’
Bishop Patrick J. Byrne, an American Maryknoll Missionary and the first Apostolic Delegate to Korea, is known to have been arrested on 11 July 1950 after the fall of Seoul. After two trials, he was sentenced to death and then marched to the Yalu River on the border between North Korea and China. The four-month journey in appalling weather with starvation rations meant that Bishop Byrne fell ill with pneumonia and died on November 25, 1950. The night before he died he told his companions: “After the privilege of my priesthood, I regard this privilege of having suffered for Christ with all of you as the greatest of my life.”
Of Bishop Hong and his 165 companions who remained in North Korea, we know nothing. When questioned about them, officials respond: ‘They are perfect strangers.’ This blanket of silence explains why it was only in June 2013 that the Holy See decided that he was ‘probably’ dead and that the same is probably true of those who were captured at about the same time. Knowing something of the appalling severity with which prisoners were treated led the Korean bishops to select Bishop Hong as the representative of all those who stood up to Communism in Korea and suffered the consequences. Bishop Byrne is regarded as a martyr although he was not executed by the regime. Few would argue that his death was anything other than martyrdom. Exactly the same is true of Bishop Hong.
On 10 March 1962, Pope John XXIII created a diocese from the Apostolic Vicariate of appointing the 'missing' Monsignor Hong as its first bishop. Since 1949, the Archbishop of Seoul has always been the Apostolic Administrator for Pyongyang – but with preconditions. Cardinal Cheong repeatedly tried to visit North Korea "but the authorities wanted to grant permission only on the condition that I bring a very substantial donation with me. It was a figure that my diocese could not afford, so I did not go. It must be known that one can enter the North only if one is bringing significant aid."
David Alton posits that Christians offer a solution to North Korea’s isolation and hunger. If Christians were given freedom to practise their religion, their concern for the poor and marginalised would inevitably draw in food, medicines, education and development. There is, surely, another possibility, one with which Alton would entirely agree. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”. The lives and deaths of Bishop Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho, his 165 companions and countless others who have died as a result of the brutality of the Communist dictatorship in North Korea will bring forth their own fruit, perhaps in unexpected ways. For sure, Bishop Hong is a symbol of persecution against Catholics in North Korea but he might also be a symbol of reconciliation and peace.
In his Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis prayed for a "spirit of reconciliation" on the Korean peninsula. An anonymous North Korean Christian subsequently said that he thereby gave strength and encouragement to this persecuted minority, letting them know that they are not forgotten and are still within the heart of the Church.