BEIJING -- American evangelist Billy Graham says he is about to become the first foreigner to preach the gospel in North Korea.
It is not certain, however, that the globe-trotting Baptist minister will be accorded another rare opportunity: meeting the "Great Leader," as Kim Il Sung, North Korea's iron-fisted dictator, likes to be known.
Mr. Graham, 73, leaves here Tuesday on a five-day trip to the world's most secretive bastion of Stalinism, where he plans to deliver sermons at two churches in the capital city of Pyongyang.
In an interview here yesterday, Mr. Graham said that he still does not know why the North Korean government invited him last fall to make the ground-breaking trip -- other than perhaps that his wife, the daughter of missionaries, attended school there in the late 1930s.
But, he said, he intends to take the opportunity to "preach the gospel just like I do anywhere in the world" and to "show warmth and friendship to all those that I meet."
Mr. Graham also said he is carrying "a general message" from George Bush to Mr. Kim, who has controlled North Korea for 46 years.
The minister said he does not know if he will meet the North Korean leader, who reportedly plans to hand over his power next month to his 50-year-old son, Kim Il Jong.
Mr. Graham said that he spoke with President Bush recently about his trip and that the president believes it could represent "a slightly greater opening" of North Korea's long-closed doors.
North Korea recently has joined the United Nations, sought increased foreign investment and softened its long-standing hostility toward South Korea, from which it was separated after World War II.
But fears about North Korea's capacity to produce nuclear weapons have also prompted recent discussion in the United States about the possibility of military action to destroy key installations.
Mr. Graham said he will preach "the love of God" at a Protestant church and "the meaning of the cross" at a Catholic church, both established within the last few years. He also has been asked to lecture on the influence of Christianity in the United States to students at Kim Il Sung University.
North Korea "used to be the Jerusalem of the East, an extremely religious country," Mr. Graham said. "But after the war, it became anti-religious, like other communist countries.
"I want to go as their friend, and I want to see some of the positive things there, come out and report on them, because there has been so much negativism about North Korea," he said.
Four years ago, Mr. Graham toured and preached in eastern China, which attempts to keep its churches under the tight control of the state. His wife, Ruth, who is not traveling with him to North Korea, was born in China.