President Moon Jae-in (left) and Pope Francis shake hands before their talks at the Vatican on Friday, in this photo provided by the Vatican. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is striving to have Pope Francis visit North Korea in what appears to be a final push to salvage diplomacy with the reclusive regime, but it remains to be seen whether Pyongyang will accept the proposal.
Moon asked the pope to visit the North when they met at the Vatican on Friday, saying a visit would build “momentum for peace” on the Korean Peninsula, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Park Kyung-mee.
In response, the pope, calling the two Koreas “brothers who speak the same language,” said he would “gladly visit” for the sake of peace, if he received an invitation from Pyongyang.
Moon was in Rome to attend the Group of 20 summit as part of his nine-day trip to Europe.
On Saturday, Moon met briefly with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit and told him about his meeting with the pope and the proposal for a papal visit. Biden welcomed this as “good news” and praised Moon for making progress on bringing peace to the peninsula.
Moon, a Roman Catholic, first floated a possible papal visit in October 2018, when he relayed to the pope a verbal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At that time, the pope expressed his willingness to visit the country and said he would consider it if he received an official invitation.
But with the denuclearization talks deadlocked and the peace process on the Korean Peninsula at a standstill, no progress on the matter has been made.
Seoul believes a rare papal visit to the closed-off country could play a critical role in reviving the peace process on the peninsula, which has been stalled since the collapse of the Hanoi summit in 2019. No pontiff has ever visited North Korea, a country known for severe crackdowns on religion, and in the past the Vatican has said no papal trip to the North could take place unless the regime agreed to allow freedom of religion and accept Catholic priests.
But Pope Francis, who has shown interest in peace between the two Koreas, has repeatedly expressed his willingness to visit.
Experts, however, are mixed on whether North Korea will open its doors to the pope, especially considering the COVID-19 situation. Pyongyang has imposed draconian lockdowns and sealed its border since the onset of the pandemic.
“The pandemic has to be controlled first before the pope and his large delegation could visit. The North blocked its border in January last year and hasn’t let anyone into the country since then,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
Park also noted that the situation and Pyongyang’s policy have changed since 2018, when a papal visit was first proposed.
“In 2018, the North was pushing to be recognized as a normal country, and saw that a possible papal visit could give the regime the international legitimacy that it sought,” said Park. “But since the eighth party congress in January, the country has stressed maintaining close ties with its traditional socialist allies and appears less interested in securing international recognition to become a normal state.”
Critics also said the North would be reluctant to welcome the pope into the country, as the visit could clash with the regime that treats religion as a threat to the monolithic authoritarian system.
Nevertheless, others hope that a potential papal visit could break the current impasse on the peninsula.
“Leader Kim had asked the pope to visit in the past, and despite the passing of time, the country could be still willing to invite the pope when the COVID-19 situation stabilizes,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Yang said a papal visit, if realized, could serve as a catalyst for peace on the divided peninsula, where Cold War hostilities still remain.