When South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in visited Pope Francis in the Vatican on Oct.18 and conveyed a verbal invitation from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit his country, the pope expressed his willingness to visit North Korea “if an official invitation arrives.” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported this after the meeting, quoting the president’s top press secretary as source. America subsequently received confirmation of this news from an informed Vatican source.
The Italian news-agency ANSA reported late Thursday afternoon that Cardinal Parolin confirmed Pope Francis’ “availablity” to visit North Korea, but said there’s no date for this yet, and today’s meeting “was the first contact.”
According to Yonhap, the press officer, Yoon Young-chan, told reporters: “The pope said ‘(I) will unconditionally give an answer if an [official] invitation arrives and I can go.’” It said the spokesman revealed that President Moon asked Francis if he may tell the North Korean leader to send an official delegate to invite him, and the pope responded that the verbal invitation relayed by the president should be sufficient but an official invitation would also be nice. The agency, which had a reporter at the public part of the audience, quoted the pope as saying: “I strongly support the South Korean government’s efforts that are pushing for a peace process on the Korean peninsula.” It said Francis also told the president, “Move forward without stopping. Do not be afraid!”
The pope expressed his willingness to visit North Korea “if an official invitation arrives.”
The Vatican issued a statement after 3.30 p.m. in Italian, English and Spanish, that was much more reticent. It confirmed that the president met Pope Francis, Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, and said: “During the cordial discussions, the parties evoked the good bilateral relations and the positive contribution offered by the Church in the social, education and healthcare sectors, as well as the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans.” It added that “strong appreciation was expressed for the common commitment to fostering all useful initiatives to overcome the tensions that still exist in the Korean Peninsula, in order to usher in a new season of peace and development.” It concluded by saying: “some matters of a regional nature were discussed.”
The Vatican statement made no mention of an invitation to the pope from the North Korean leader. This could be due to the fact that no official written invitation has yet arrived. A South Korean source told America that the reason why President Moon only brought an oral invitation, not a written one, is probably related to the fact that conservative political sectors in South Korea would not accept that their president could serve as a postman for North Korea’s Kim. By conveying a verbal invitation that problem was avoided.
Today’s encounter was the first meeting between the third Catholic president of Korea and a pope.
“I come as president of the Korean state, but I also come as a Catholic, my baptismal name was Timothy, and I am honored to meet you,” the president stated. Francis smiled. The Korean leader added, “I thank you for finding time to receive me as I know you are very busy with the synod of bishops.”
Francis then accompanied President Moon into the library and the two leaders sat, facing each other, at the table where the pope normally receives heads of state. After a photo op, they began their 35-minute-long private conversation with the aid of a Korean priest, who served as interpreter.
At the end of their talk behind closed doors, the president introduced his wife, Jungsook Kim, also a Catholic, and his large delegation that included the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and for Culture, as well as the Korean ambassador to the Holy See. Then came the time for the exchange of gifts.
President Moon presented Francis with a sculpture of the face of Jesus with the crown of thorns, and told him the thorns also symbolize “the sufferings of the Korean people.” He also gave the pope a large marble statue of the Madonna, and said her face resembles that of a Korean woman. Francis for his part presented the Korean president with a medallion symbolizing an olive branch as a sign and hope for peace. He also gifted him with a copy of his message for this year’s World Day of Peace, and hardbound copies of the main documents of his pontificate. It was evident from the body-language, and the frequent interchanges, that President Moon and Francis relate well to each other. Before they moved to the door to say farewell, they again conversed in private for a few minutes. As they said goodbye, Francis asked the president’s wife “Pray for me.” President Moon, shaking the pope’s hand said, “You are not only the head of the Catholic church you are a master for humanity!” Francis encouraged him in his efforts saying, “Good work for peace!”
President Moon and his delegation then went for a private conversation with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the secretary for relations with states who made an official visit to South Korea some months ago and, in the 1990s, visited North Korea.
If Francis were to visit North Korea, this could happen next year when he visits nearby Japan, though a date for this has not yet been settled.
President Moon arrived in Europe on Oct. 13 as part of a nine-day visit to various countries. He met with France’s President Macron before coming to the Vatican. He arrived in Rome on Oct. 17 and attended Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica that evening “for peace in the Korean peninsula” celebrated by the Cardinal Parolin. In his homily, the cardinal prayed to God for “the gift of peace for the whole world” and “especially that also in the Korean peninsula the word peace may at last resound fully after so many years of tension and division.” He emphasized that peace is built day by day “by a serious commitment at the service of justice and solidarity, by the promotion of rights and the dignity of the human person, and especially through the care of the weakest.”
After the Mass, President Moon told the congregation of some 500 Koreans, including 300 priests and women religious living in Rome, that “right now on the Korean peninsula, historic and heart-warming changes are taking place. We are blazing the trail of a noble endeavor to secure peace.” As is well known, the North and South Korean leaders have held three summits this year, while the North Korean leader had a first ever meeting with a U.S. president when Kim met Donald Trump in Singapore and agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
President Moon returned to the Vatican Oct. 18 for the audience with Francis. But before that encounter, Yonhap news-agency reported that he came to “seek the pope’s blessing and support for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and discuss ways for future cooperation with the Vatican.”
Pope Francis is well aware of the tragic division of Korea into two states that took place in 1945 after the Allies defeated Japan in the Second World War, ending its 35 year-long occupation of the country.
After that war, the South gradually developed into a liberal democracy and became one the world’s largest economies. The Catholic Church played an important role in the struggle for justice and human rights in the country and as a result gained the confidence of people. When Francis visited in August 2014, Christians counted for 30 percent of South Korea’s 50 million people, Catholics make up almost 11 percent.
North Korea, on the other hand, became a hermit-like communist state, supported mainly by China. Although Christianity came first to North Korea and the country’s constitution recognizes religious freedom, there is in fact no real religious freedom in that country today. Before the war there was an estimated 55,000 Catholics, but today the number is very small, ranging from a few hundred to an estimated 4,000. There is at least one officially recognized Catholic church in Pyongyang, where Vatican delegates have celebrated Mass during visits there attended by about 100 people, but the authorities in Pyongyang refuse requests to allow priests to reside permanently in the country. A papal visit might help change that.
Since the end of the Korean war, the Holy See has studiously avoided being part of the polarization around the two Koreas and has always sought to build links with North Korea by providing humanitarian aid to the poverty-stricken sector of its population. When in the early 1990s, there were moves towards reconciliation in the peninsula, the Holy See has always supported this goal, but those attempts floundered and an international crisis erupted after North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test in 2006 and indicated that it planned to further develop its nuclear capacity.
This news sparked international outrage and triggered the risk of a nuclear arms race in the region. When, as a result of this, many states hesitated to send humanitarian aid to North Korea and sanctions were tightened, the Holy See always insisted that whatever the political tensions the international community should continue to provide humanitarian aid to these poor people (in 2007 there were about 2 million). In recent decades, the visits by Vatican delegations to North Korea were followed up with the provision of humanitarian aid to that vulnerable part of the population through Caritas Internationalis in Hong Kong and South Korea.
If Francis were to visit North Korea, this could happen next year when he visits nearby Japan, though a date for this has not yet been settled. Before that can happen, however, a formal invitation from North Korea to the pope will have to arrive in the Vatican.
This story has been updated.