Buddhists from 2 Koreas hold joint ceremony

Seoul, South Korea - Buddhist monks from South and North Korea held a joint ceremony at a temple in the communist country Saturday in a continuation of civic exchanges between the nations despite a bloody naval skirmish earlier this month.

The two countries are trying to minimize political damage from the naval clash off their disputed western sea border on Nov. 10, which killed one North Korean sailor and wounded three others, according to South Korea.

"This shows that inter-Korean exchange and cooperation proceeds in a normal manner," South Korean Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said of Saturday's ceremony.

Eight South Korean monks from the Cheontae Order and four North Korean monks — all clad in gray or dark blue Buddhist robes — marked the 908th anniversary of the death of the order's founder, a monk named Jawoon said after returning home from the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

Kaesong is also the site of a joint North and South Korean industrial complex and was one of two scenic areas that South Korean tourists had been able to visit, along with the Diamond Mountain resort on North Korea's east coast.

The tours — a key symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation — were halted last year amid heightened tensions. North Korea said in August it would restart them, but a date has yet to be worked out.

Jong So Jong, a senior official in the North's Buddhist Federation of Korea, expressed confidence that Saturday's ceremony would help in restarting the tours.

The Cheontae Order, South Korea's second-largest Buddhist sect, helped North Korea restore a temple in Kaesong in 2005. Since then, monks from the two Koreas have held annual ceremonies there, except last year when ties soured.

Relations between the two Koreas worsened after a conservative government that advocates tougher policies toward the North took office in South Korea last year.

North Korea has recently made a series of conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington after months of provocations that included pulling out of nuclear disarmament talks, test-firing missiles and conducting a second atomic test. President Barack Obama announced in South Korea on Thursday that a special envoy would visit North Korea on Dec. 8 in an effort to restart the nuclear talks.

Buddhism is the oldest major religion in both Koreas, and is followed by about 22.8 percent of South Korea's population.

North Korea claims to guarantee freedom of religion, but severely restricts its observance and allows only state-approved religious groups. It has about 10,000 Buddhists, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a Seoul-based government think tank.