North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, said the South Korean presidential office on Tuesday.
“Chairman Kim said he will ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang’,” Kim Eui-Kyeom, spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told media in Seoul. Kim told Moon of his wish to meet the pope during last month’s summit of the two leaders, the spokesman added, without elaborating on the timing.
The spokesman said Moon will deliver Kim’s message to the pontiff when he visits the Vatican Oct. 17-18. North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations. The invitation to the pope is the first by a North Korean leader since 2000. Although that meeting, proposed by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, never materialized, the plan for Francis to visit is the North’s latest diplomatic initiative this year.
A 2014 survey by Korea Gallup showed 22 percent of South Koreans identify themselves as Buddhist, while nearly 30 percent are Christian. North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state, but beyond a handful of state-controlled places of worship, no open religious activity is allowed. According to a U.S. State Department report, Christians in North Korea have been forced to meet in secret and in some cases sentenced to labor camps. The May report, based on United Nations studies of North Koreans who have fled the regime and other sources, says Kim’s regime routinely employed “arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity” against Christians in particular throughout 2017.
In recent months, Kim’s regime has warmed to the West and conducted a June summit with President Donald Trump and pledged to work toward de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Another summit with Trump is being negotiated, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made multiple trips to Pyongyang in recent weeks.
For the pope, the invitation comes at a controversial time for the church. A recent wave of sexual abuse accusations from around the world has brought scrutiny on the Vatican. The Vatican didn’t comment directly on Pyongyang’s invitation on Tuesday but said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, would celebrate a “Mass for peace” for the Korean Peninsula on Oct. 17 at St. Peter’s Basilica, which Mr. Moon would attend. There was no immediate comment on the matter in North Korea’s state media.
It is unclear whether the Vatican might play a mediating role in an effort to normalize relations between the two Koreas. Pope Francis helped broker a deal in December 2014 to normalize ties between the U.S. and Cuba, writing letters to President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro urging them to settle outstanding issues.
During a five-day visit to the South four years ago, Pope Francis led prayers for peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas. But on the day he arrived in Seoul, North Korea launched a series of short-range rockets,
Ahn Chan-il, president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, a private think tank in Seoul, said the outreach to the Vatican showed that Mr. Kim was growing in diplomatic confidence after his attendance at a series of summits. By inviting the pope, he said, “North Korea is seeking to divert global attention away from its nukes while attaining an image as a normal state and a peace pursuer.”