Pope ponders landmark visit to North Korea after Kim invitation

Invitation to visit was relayed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

    Pope Francis after his weekly general audience at the Vatican in August 2018 [FILE/Andrew Medichini/AP]
    Pope Francis after his weekly general audience at the Vatican in August 2018 [FILE/Andrew Medichini/AP]

    Pope Francis indicated he would consider making what would be a landmark trip to North Korea after being invited to visit the isolated state, South Korean officials said.

    South Korea's President Moon Jae-in relayed the invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the pontiff during a 35-minute meeting at the Vatican on Thursday.

    Kim told Moon, a Catholic, of his wish to meet the pope during a meeting last month and the South Korean leader announced before the trip he would relay the message.

    According to the president's office, Pope Francis expressed his strong support for efforts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Moon's office quoted the pontiff telling Moon: "Do not stop, move forward. Do not be afraid."

    If Francis accepts the invitation he would become the first pope to visit the country. North Korea does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there and there is little information on how many of its citizens are Catholic or how they practise their faith.

    A meeting with the pope would be the latest in a string of diplomatic initiatives for Kim Jong Un this year. He held an unprecedented summit with a US president when he met Donald Trump in Singapore in June, with the two leaders promising to work towards denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

    The two Koreas have held three summits this year.

    Formal invitation

    Asked if Kim should send a formal invitation, Moon's office quoted the pope as telling Moon: "Your message is already sufficient, but it would be good for him to send a formal invitation."

    "I will definitely answer if I get the invitation, and I can go," the president's office quoted Pope Francis as saying.

    A Vatican statement made no mention of the verbal invitation from Kim.

    It spoke only of "the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans" and "the common commitment to fostering all useful initiatives to overcome the tensions that still exist in the Korean Peninsula, in order to usher in a new season of peace and development".

    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 - including a Catholic church in the capital Pyongyang - no open religious activity is allowed and the authorities have repeatedly jailed foreign missionaries.

    The pope is expected to visit Japan next year. The proposed North Korea visit comes as China improves relations with the Holy See.

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    SOURCE: News agencies