Hoping for the popePope Francis on Thursday was positive about an invitation to Pyongyang delivered by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a meeting with the pontiff at the Vatican. At a summit in Pyongyang last month, Moon proposed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he invite the pope to North Korea. Kim reportedly told Moon that he would heartily welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang sooner or later.
A papal visit to North Korea would carry great significance today. First of all, it could help the conflict-ridden Korean Peninsula put all the confrontations behind it and move toward peace for a better future. A papal visit could also offer a watershed moment for the North Korean people — who have been living under arguably the most despotic and oppressive regime over the last seven decades — by helping them move onto a path of liberty and human rights.
Pope Francis has great interest in Korean Peninsular issues. He chose to visit South Korea in 2014 — a year after taking office — which was his first and only destination in Asia that year. Moon also persistently requested the pope to play a positive role in resolving the decades-long division of the peninsula. Thanks to frequent correspondence, the Vatican’s treatment of Moon was extraordinary, as clearly seen in a senior Vatican official’s arranging of a special mass for peace on the Korean Peninsula at St. Peter’s Basilica. After the mass, Moon highlighted the need to overcome division and achieve peace on the peninsula by putting an end to the last-remaining legacy of the Cold War through an end-of-war declaration and peace treaty.
However, the road to a papal visit to Pyongyang will not be so smooth given the North’s poor human rights record and lack of religious freedoms, in particular. That’s why former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s request for Pope John Paul II to visit Pyongyang eventually went down the drain. But Pope Francis is different. He has the conviction that he should end the painful era of division and rupture to build a bridge of brotherhood and plant a seed of hope on the barren Northeast Asian land.
We are looking forward to Pope Francis’ visit to North Korea. But at the same time, we should not forget that genuine peace on the peninsula can only be achieved by the denuclearization of North Korea.
In that sense, the Blue House’s typical reiteration of a solid alliance between South Korea and the United States and its all-out diplomacy to ease international sanctions on North Korea are ringing alarms. The government must act carefully.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 20, Page 34