Asia Pacific

North Korea’s Kim invites Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, Seoul says

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Tuesday.

“Chairman Kim said he will ‘ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang,'” spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said according to a readout of the news briefing. The spokesman was announcing details about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s planned visit to Europe next week, which includes a stop at the Vatican on Oct. 17 and 18.

Moon was expected to deliver the message from the North Korean leader when he meets with the pope.

At their meeting, Moon will seek Francis’ support for the ongoing push for peace on the Korean Peninsula and discuss future ways to cooperate with the Vatican, the Blue House spokesman added.

Francis has in recent months expressed his backing for continued inter-Korean engagement, even meeting with representatives from both Koreas in June.

In April, he applauded Kim and Moon for their “courageous” step toward unity, saying he prays for “the positive success of the Inter-Korean summit … and the courageous commitment assumed by the leaders of the two parts to carry out a path of sincere dialogue for a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.”

Moon and Kim met last month for their third inter-Korean summit.

According to the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea, there were 5,813,770 members of the Catholic Church in the South — 11.0 percent of the population — with 5,360 priests and 1,734 parishes as of the end of last year. Statistics on the North side of the border, however, remain far more murky. The state-run Korean Catholic Association says there are some 3,000 followers in the country of 25 million, while outside observers say there are only about 800.

Before Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, established the North Korean regime, Pyongyang had more Christians than any other city on the peninsula and was widely known as the “Korean Jerusalem.” But the vast majority of that presence was eradicated as early as the 1950s, with the regime maintaining a close and skeptical watch on all religious activities in the country since.

The Catholic Church, like any other religion, is only allowed to operate in North Korea under extremely tight restrictions, and within the confines of the KCA. Indeed, the only Catholic church in the North is not recognized by the Vatican.

Experts said the optics of the pope visiting Pyongyang would be significant as Kim seeks to soften the portrayal of his regime — known for its brutal repression and nuclear weapons program — amid its ongoing detente with regional powers and its denuclearization talks with the United States.

“Kim Jong Un inviting the Pope to Pyongyang is a bold and unexpected move,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “But it is wholly in keeping with North Korea’s desire to maintain the upper hand in the global public narrative, shaping a discourse where it is the driver of peace.”