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Will Pope Francis Become First Pope To Visit North Korea?

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By Rock Ronald Rozario

(UCA News) — Efforts and optimism are running high for a potential trip by Pope Francis to North Korea that is seen as a precursor for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.

Park Jie-won, a senior politician and director of the National Intelligence Service in South Korea, recently said that state-level efforts are underway for a papal visit to North Korea,

He spoke about the possible papal trip to the communist nation during a special ceremony to mark the Vatican’s recognition of Sanjeong-dong Catholic Church at Mokpo in Gwangju Archdiocese as a minor basilica on July 6, reported the Vatican’s Fides news agency.

Park said he has been engaged in preliminary work for the papal trip and he would soon meet Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-jong of Gwangju and Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, the apostolic nuncio in South Korea, to talk about the pope visiting Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Park is a former parliamentarian from Mokpo. He served as the chief secretary of President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and as the minister of culture, sports and tourism. He is credited with playing an important role in organizing the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

His comments are the latest in a series of optimistic views from religious and political leaders in South Korea about a papal visit to the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.

In March, Catholic leaders in South Korea launched a special prayer campaign for a papal trip to North Korea and for peace in the region.

During a meeting of the Korean Bishops’ Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People on March 11, bishops expressed hope that a papal visit to North Korea would happen one day.

“There are different barriers against peace on the Korean Peninsula, but we hope strongly that a papal visit to North Korea will be possible one day. We are already producing various books on peace, reconciliation and unity to reinforce and awaken peace in the mind of people,” said Bishop Peter Ki-heon Lee of Uijeongbu, chairman of the committee.

The former South Korean ambassador to the Vatican, Lee Min-Baek, who also attended the meeting, noted that a papal trip and better diplomatic engagement are vital for peace in Northeast Asia.

“If the foreign policy of the pope and the Holy See is combined with the reactivation of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, it will be of great help in establishing peace in Northeast Asia including the Korean Peninsula,” Lee said.

During a recent interview with Fides following his appointment as the new prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, South Korean Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik expressed similar sentiments.

During his audience with Pope Francis in 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in gave him an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for an apostolic visit to the nation, the archbishop said. The pope replied affirmatively and said he was available for the visit.  

“When I heard the news of the Holy Father’s availability, I was really moved. Since then I have constantly prayed for the pope’s visit to North Korea to take place. Nearly 10 million Koreans live in forced separation due to the division between the south and the north. The confrontation that exists on the Korean Peninsula is one of the greatest sufferings of humanity today,” Archbishop You said in the interview.

“In concrete terms, the Holy Father’s mediation could be a propitious opportunity to put an end to the conflict, the result of mutual distrust between the two parts of the peninsula which has lasted for too many decades. I pray and try to do what I can, in the hope that at least a small ray of hope will open up for mutual understanding, overcoming the current situation of tension and opposition.” 

North Korea has a population of about 24 million led by Kim Jong-un, the authoritarian heir of the powerful Kim family that has been ruling the communist and officially atheist nation since its inception.

North Korea’s constitution recognizes rights to faith but in reality basic freedoms including religious liberty are non-existent in the country.

Following the end of repressive Japanese imperial rule (1905-45) after World War II, Korea was divided into two, leading to the deadly Korean War (1950-53). With backing from China and Russia, North Korean communist forces engaged in atrocities against the largely democratic South, which secured the support of the West including the US.

Most Christians fled North Korea following a brutal crackdown and killings as the communists falsely branded them as spies and agents of the West.

Although definite data is unavailable, various studies suggest most North Koreans are non-religious, but small communities of Buddhists and Christians exist amid strict control and persecution by the ruling regime.

The Korean Catholic Association, a state-controlled body, claims that North Korea has some 3,000 Catholics, whereas independent estimates suggest the figure is no more than 800.

North Korea does not have any diplomatic relations with the Vatican and no pope has ever visited the country.

Kim Jong-il, former president and father of Kim Jong-un, invited Pope John Paul II to visit the country following the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. The late pope said it would be “a miracle” if he could go there and it never happened.

The Vatican reportedly responded by saying that a papal visit to North Korea would be possible if Catholic priests were accepted and the Church was allowed to function independently.

Last month, in an interview with national broadcaster KBS Radio, South Korean President Moon, a Catholic, said he seeks a papal visit to North Korea “to save the inter-Korean peace legacy.”

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UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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