Pope Francis has called for renewed efforts to forge peace on the Korean Peninsula as he opened a five-day visit to South Korea with a message of reconciliation, as North Korea fired five rockets into the sea.
During the first papal visit to South Korea in 25 years, and the first to Asia in 15 years, Francis told South Korean President Park Geun-hye that peace required forgiveness and mutual respect.
“Diplomacy… is based on the firm and persevering conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force,” he said.
During his speech, Francis only referred to “Korea” or the “Korean peninsula” and avoided any specific mention of either the North or South, which have remained divided since the 1950-53 Korean War.
President Park said his visit would help open an era of “hope and reunification” and promised to expand humanitarian programmes to the North.
But she also stressed there could be no real progress until Pyongyang abandoned its nuclear weapons programme.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from the South Korean capital Seoul, said Catholicism represents “about a third of South Korea’s Christian community – about 30 percent of South Koreans are Christians, the majority being Protestant”.
He added that the country views the Pope’s visit as a prestigious event and at least a million people are expected to gather in the capital on Saturday to witness a religious ceremony.
North Korea has this year conducted an unusually large number of missile and artillery test firings. Pyongyang has expressed anger over ongoing annual military drills between the United States and South Korea.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea urged Seoul to scrap the joint US-South Korea drills expected to start in coming days, Pyongyang’s official news agency KCNA reported.
Although North Korea declined an invitation to Seoul for the papal visit, Francis plans to reach out to Pyongyang during his five-day trip in a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Seoul said: “It is quite unseemly to fire such weapons on the day of the arrival of the pope, who comes here to give his blessing to all the people in the Korean peninsula, whether in the South or the North.”