SEOUL, May 21 (Xinhua) -- South Korea's Catholic leader on Wednesday visited the inter-Korean factory park in Kaesong, the border town in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Seoul's Unification Ministry said.
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin told a routine press briefing that Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung crossed the inter-Korean border into the DPRK along with seven other Catholic Church officials to visit the Kaesong industrial zone.
Yeom is scheduled to return home at 5 p.m. after meeting with South Korean officials and managers working in the factory park and touring facilities there, Park said.
Yeom, 71, became the first South Korean Catholic leader to visit the DPRK. He is the third cardinal of South Korea following the late Kim Sou-hwan and Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk.
Other South Korean religious leaders have visited the DPRK before, and the latest case was the travel to Kaesong by the leader of Cheontae, one of three Buddhist orders in the country.
The Catholic leader originally sought to travel to the North last winter, but the DPRK didn't approve it, Park said.
Yeom asked the Unification Ministry to allow him to visit the North last week, and the DPRK gave a green light to it on Monday, the spokeswoman said, adding that the DPRK called for his visit not to be made public.
His visit comes as tensions are running high on the Korean Peninsula after the DPRK fired scores of short-range missiles and threatened a new form of nuclear test in protest against the joint military drills between South Korea and the United States.
The DPRK's rare approval to the South Korean religious leader's trip was seen by some as a conciliatory gesture.
Touching on it, Park said it would not be appropriate to evaluate his visit's influence on the inter-Korean relations at this point, noting the Catholic Church may announce the visit's consequences after Yeom's comeback.
Yeom's visit also comes less than three months ahead of Pope Francis' visit to South Korea. Pope Francis is slated to visit South Korea for five days from Aug. 14.
Park said the Catholic Church has not been considering Yeom's visit to Pyongyang yet, dispelling expectations that Yeom's visit to Kaesong could lead to Pope Francis' trip to the DPRK.