Moon Jae-in visited the Vatican on October 29, 2021, when he met Pope Francis to discuss the possibility of a visit by the pontiff to North Korea, saying the Koreans hope the visit will help strengthen peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Pope Francis responded positively and said he was willing to make the trip if there was a formal offer from Pyongyang.
The idea of showing the pope to North Korea has come up before. For example, in October 2018, amid the Olympic warming, Moon paid a courtesy call to the pope and delivered a verbal invitation from Kim. The pope said at the time he was willing to visit the North if the North Korean regime sends him an official invitation. However, due to the resulting deadlock in inter-Korean and US-North Korean relations, no further progress has been made in arranging the visit.
However, on July 6, 2021, National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Park Jie-won announced during a Catholic event in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, that he is working to organize a Pyongyang visit by Pope Francis and urged the attendees to “pray for this to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.”. No pontiff has ever visited this country before.
There were some reasons for that. Addressing members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See on February 8, the pope said he was closely monitoring the situation on the Korean peninsula and was watching the deterioration in inter-Korean relations with keen interest.
On October 25, shortly before President Moon Jae-in visited Rome, Lee Jong-joo, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification, Republic of Korea said that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican would launch a peace process involving North Korea. Another senior presidential administration official claimed that the pope has repeatedly expressed his willingness to visit North Korea.”
Pro-Government experts immediately began talking about how the pope’s visit would affect the situation in the region. According to Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, “While North Korea is rife with issues related to human rights violations and freedom of religion, a papal visit would have a symbolic meaning, and it could lead to a better rapprochement between South and North Korea.” And if the visit succeeds, the leaders of North and South Korea with the United States, accompanied by the pope, could officially declare the end of the Korean War.
“A visit by the pope would help to show North Korea that another, less isolated future is possible if it changes its behavior and becomes more receptive to Seoul’s and Washington’s call for engagement,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. In addition, “a visit by the pope would draw attention to North Korea in a positive way, signaling that other countries are willing to entertain the possibility of better relations with Pyongyang.”
However, the main stumbling block to the pope’s visit is that he would like to talk about human rights, including religious freedom, and the Kim regime will have a hard time accepting this.
In a similar vein, the Korea Times also wrote: “A possible visit to North Korea by Pope Francis, the religious leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, could carry significant meaning. It could also have positive implications on Moon’s push for an official declaration of the end of the Korean War, which was halted in 1953 with an armistice but not a peace treaty. In addition, it could help create an atmosphere conducive to improving inter-Korean ties and resuming the denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.” According to the newspaper, the pope has expressed his desire to visit Seoul and Pyongyang in one trip and to walk hand in hand with the leaders of the two Koreas at the truce village of Panmunjom. Still, against the background of the actions of North Korea, we should not be too optimistic.
On November 1, the ROK government reiterated its call for North Korea to invite Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, expressing hope for progress in efforts to consolidate peace in the region: “As the pope’s willingness to visit North Korea is confirmed, we hope the North will pave the way for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Alas, as early as November 2, Cheong Wa Dae spokesman said the pope is unlikely to visit North Korea in the winter, although it is difficult to predict when the trip will happen. As Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee told KBS radio, “The pope is from Argentina, which is a warm country, so my understanding is that it’s difficult for him to travel in the winter.”
Park Kyung-mee emphasized that a visit to North Korea by the pope, “who is constantly praying for peace on the Korean Peninsula, is not a (publicity) event but a noble action in its own right.” “We would like it to be viewed on its own, rather than in connection with an end-of-war declaration or the Beijing Olympics,” the presidential administration spokeswoman added, referring to speculation that the government hopes to use a papal visit to draw the North to the negotiation table and set the stage for another inter-Korean summit on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in February 2022.
Nevertheless, the South Korean Minister of Reunification, Lee In-young, said that on November 3, the South Korean government would work to create favorable conditions for Pope Francis to travel to North Korea. Lee added that the likelihood of such a trip would increase if North Korea decides to do so. He said the pope’s visit could contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On the same day, November 3, Pope Francis thanked the South Korean Catholic community for donating to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine to countries in need. As it turns out, in June and October 2021, Catholic entities in South Korea transferred $1 million each to the Holy See – formally for countries in need.
As can be seen, Moon’s Good Catholic regime includes certain situations, and the visit to the Vatican was accompanied by very serious donations to the Catholic Church. According to one version, it went to fight the pandemic, and the other to use the church as a lobbying structure for Moon’s initiatives.
However, when the author reads about South Korea’s proposal to arrange a pope’s visit to the North, a straightforward question arises. Didn’t they forget to ask the North about it, and how would Pyongyang, which has not made any statement, feel about such an event? Yes, unlike Protestants, Catholics are not stigmatized by Korean War collaborationism, and even the most active “string pullers” are not babbling about banning Catholicism. Pyongyang has a Catholic church, but the Catholic community is not large, and it is at least formally designed for a domestic audience.
It’s clear what Moon is counting on. First, if the visit takes place, the world community will credit the pope and Moon, who proposed and organized it all. Secondly, the media often remain loud statements of politicians, while much less is written about the extent to which these promises have been fulfilled. Moon’s intensified foreign policy activities, including his high-profile statements at climate events or as part of the fight for carbon neutrality, have a simple reason: Moon is trying to get noticed in the foreign policy arena and ward off a dwindling rating.
Third, there is a not exceptionally secret expectation that the pope’s visit to North Korea will have the same social and ideological implications as Pope John Paul II’s (a Pole by nationality) visit to socialist Poland.
From the author’s perspective, if such plans exist, you can already start laughing at them. North Korea is not Poland, where the Catholic Church remained an influential force. And so, if the visit does take place, it will be a purely ceremonial event, which will not in any way spur the “Christian resistance” that exists somewhat in the minds of the advocacy groups.
This also seems to be understood in the Vatican, where they listened politely to Moon and nodded and then tried to be cool about it, explaining that the pope comes from warm Argentina and will not go to a cold North Korean winter. The monk and Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio are well aware of the cost of action and means.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.