Kim and Francis
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Will Pope Francis visit Pyongyang? Will he be able to tear down the Cold War barrier on the Korean Peninsula and change the destiny of the two Koreas? President Moon Jae-in visited the Vatican and delivered North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s wish to invite the pontiff to Pyongyang. Pope Francis expressed a willingness to make the visit.
But hasty optimism is undesirable. Kim’s two predecessors — Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il — made attempts to invite the pope to the rogue state in 1991 and 2000, respectively, but their visits were never realized due to complicated reasons. This time, will the pope — the leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics around the world — be able to make Pyongyang — called “Asia’s Jerusalem” a century ago — walk out of its self-imposed decades long isolation?
A native of Argentina, Francis came from outside Europe and is the first Jesuit pope. He puts more values on realities over commandments and on actions over thoughts. He acted as a mediator between Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama to restore the severed ties of the two countries after 54 years. He played a crucial role in ending the civil war in Colombia. He also visited Israel and the Palestinian territories with Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
Earlier this year, he said the Korean Peninsula has always been in his heart and mind. During a private meeting with Moon, the pope said, “Move forward without stopping. Do not be afraid.” His heart already seems to be beating for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang used to be a city of spirituality, where the shadow of Christ was cast over the Taedong River. Robert Thomas, a Welsh Protestant missionary, acted as an interpreter on an American trading ship — the General Sherman — in 1866 and arrived in Pyongyang on Aug. 27 of that year. South Pyongan Governor Park Gyu-su and his army called the vessel, which demanded trade, an “enemy” and burned it, killing the sailors on Sept. 5. Before being executed by Park Chun-gwon, a machete-wielding executioner, Thomas scattered Bibles written in Chinese characters along the riverside. Thomas became the first martyred Protestant missionary in Korea. Park picked up one of the Bibles and later devoted the rest of his life to missionary work.
The northern city — filled with openness as a trade hub and antipathy toward the Joseon court’s discrimination against the region at the time — passionately received Christianity. Following a revival assembly in Pyongyang in 1907, the number of believers rapidly increased to 600,000 in Korea. Kim Il Sung, a native of Pyongyang, was an organist of a Sunday school during his childhood. A foreign school was located in Pyongyang for children of missionaries. Such a school did not exist even in China at the time.
Pyongyang’s history with the Catholics goes back to the late 16th century during the Japanese invasion of Korea. Most of the 18,000 troops led by Konishi Yukinaga, who spearheaded the invasion at the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, were Catholic. Konishi’s Christian name was Augustus. Carrying military flags bearing a cross, the forces arrived at the port of Busan and entered Hanyang, then the capital city of Joseon, after 20 days. Soon, it entered the fortress of Pyongyang and destroyed it completely. The Korean people’s blood was flowing. King Seonjo even considered taking asylum with the Ming Dynasty.
The invasion was possible because Japan’s Oda Nobunaga — a powerful daimyo in the late 16th century — allowed the Jesuit missionaries into the country in 1569 and received artillery technology. The first encounter between Pyongyang and the Catholics was ill-fated.
Francis is actually a Jesuit. It is a fortunate coincidence for Kim Jong-un, who wants to make his country a normal state, that Pope Francis is willing to visit Pyongyang. If the pontiff — who emphasizes justice and peace — is involved in Korean Peninsula affairs, U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by aides who demand strict conditions for denuclearization, can also perhaps be motivated to find a breakthrough.
Francis is a strong leader who battled against dictatorship, poverty and prostitution in his homeland of Argentina, and he also shows generosity and tolerance. He has criticized the priests who refuse to baptize children of single mothers. He said tears will open our eyes to see Christ.
Moon’s Christian name is Timothy, a helper of Saint Paul’s missionary works. Can Moon be a Timothy of the 21st century to help Francis’s efforts to normalize the North?
Kim Jong-un wants to invite the pope to Pyongyang. If he truly has the will, he must present a clear message of denuclearization and accept freedom of human rights and religion. His father and grandfather had invited previous popes but missed the opportunity while trying to protect the regime. If Kim invites Pope Francis without accepting the validity of his religion, he will face criticism that Pyongyang is using the Vatican for its political goals.
Ending 70 years of hostility cannot be done by elaborate strategies. A bold decision by a leader to denuclearize is the only way. For Francis to visit Pyongyang — and to resolve the historic task of achieving peace on the peninsula — Kim must undo the knot he has tied.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 22, Page 31