In Depth

Vatican says Pope considering visit to North Korea

Accepting Kim Jong Un’s invitation would ‘legitimise’ oppressive regime, warn analysts

Pope Francis may be willing to to visit North Korea after receiving an invitation from Kim Jong Un, the Vatican has announced.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a Catholic, relayed the invite from his North Korean counterpart during a private audience at the Vatican on Thursday, says The Guardian.

ABC News reports that upon being told a more formal invitation would follow, the Pope responded: “If the invitation comes, I will surely respond to it, and I can possibly go.” 

Hours later, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters: “The Pope expressed his willingness. We have to wait for it [the invitation] to be formalised.”

Such a visit would be the first by any pope to the totalitarian state. However, it appears that certain conditions would have to be met before Kim’s invitation could be accepted.

Asked about these possible conditions, Parolin added: “This will come later, once we start thinking in earnest about the possibility of making this trip, then we will have to think about conditions in which the trip can take place.”

The North Korean regime is infamous for its human rights abuses and is “one of the worst in the world for persecuting Christians”, says The Guardian.

There is no reliable information available on how many citizens of the reclusive state, which strongly discourages all religious practice, follow the Catholic faith.

But it is estimated that at least 50,000 Christians are currently being held in prisons, labour camps, re-education camps, and detention centres in North Korea, according to US-based advocacy group Open Doors.

Analysts are already warning of the potential effects if the pontiff does accept an invitation to visit.

Former US National Security Council official Michael Green, who now works for the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN that “to physically travel to North Korea and meet with Kim, I fear, would legitimise a leader who is the greatest enemy to religious freedom on the face of the Earth”.

However, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said that the Pope’s comments implied that he had “effectively accepted an invitation to visit” North Korea already, and that Seoul hopes the religious leader “could help expedite the process to bring peace to the divided peninsula”.

Hong Young-pyo, the ruling Democratic Party’s floor leader, told a meeting of senior party members that a papal visit would add “momentum to induce the North toward the path to denuclearisation”.

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