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The Peninsula

Papal Visit to Pyongyang: A Step to Bridge Human Rights and Engagement

Published November 13, 2018
Author: Yonoho Kim
Category: North Korea

By Yonho Kim

Last month, Pope Francis’s indication of his interest in visiting North Korea drew keen attention throughout the world. In response to an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un verbally conveyed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the pope said he will be “available for the trip” promising his answer to an official invitation to be followed up by Kim. While the Vatican’s official position is that certain conditions must be examined for the papal trip to happen, critics immediately voiced profound concerns about the potential negative effects of a papal visit to Pyongyang pointing to North Korea’s abysmal track record of religious freedom. However, as a world religious leader, Pope Francis is in a perfect position to bring the message of both peace and religious freedom to the communist country. This expectation seems to be widespread among South Koreans, which might spark a healthy discussion of how to bridge the gap between human rights and engagement in the North Korea policy community.

It is notable that in South Korea even major conservative newspapers support the pope’s trip to Pyongyang. In its editorial, sincerely hoping for a papal visit to be realized, Donga Ilbo assessed that even the pope’s expression of willingness to visit North Korea would serve as a firm spiritual backing in the journey to the denuclearization and peace regime on the Korean peninsula. Joongang Ilbo also put great significance to a historical papal visit to the North. “It could help the conflict-ridden Korean Peninsula put all the confrontations behind it and move toward peace for a better future,” the newspaper argued. Of course, both conservative newspapers underscored the dreadful human rights situation in North Korea; Donga Ilbo even set religious freedom as a precondition of the pope’s trip to Pyongyang. However, both newspapers expected that the pope would bring strong momentum to the efforts to improve human rights in the North. (Chosun Ilbo, the largest conservative newspaper in South Korea, has not published an editorial on a potential papal visit.)

When it comes to the Korean peninsula, the Vatican has been consistently sending a message of peace and human rights. In a ‘peace’ message released during his visit to Seoul in 1989, Pope John Paul II said he had in mind “with deep affection, hope and sorrow, the people of North Korea and especially its Catholic community.” He also said to then-President Roh Tae-woo that “you are confronted with the challenge of seeking peaceful and just pathways toward a national life and reunification based on authentic justice, freedom and inalienable human rights.’‘ In 2014 Pope Francis chose South Korea as his first destination in Asia and told then-President Park Geun-hye that he had in mind “peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula” while calling for forgiveness and renewed dialogue between the two Koreas. In a ‘Mass for Peace’ on the Korean peninsula in which President Moon participated last month at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin emphasized that “peace is built with the choices of every day, with a serious commitment to the service of justice and solidarity, with the promotion of the rights and dignity of the human person, and especially through the care of the weakest.”

The Vatican and the Korean Catholic Church have been instrumental in promoting democracy and reconciliation in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. The Korean Catholic Church led by late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan was at the forefront of the democratization movement against the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984 Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass in Gwangju, the center of democratic uprising in 1980, and “pleaded with Gwangju, which was still seething with resentment, to take the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation.” Pope Francis also provided a healing moment to South Koreans when the nation was still in grief and politically divided over the tragedy of the capsized ferry Sewol which left more than 300 people killed. During his visit to South Korea in 2014, Pope Francis spoke multiple times to the survivors and  families of victims and said “my words of comfort cannot give new life to the dead but can allow us to unite through consolation.” In this sense, it is understandable that many South Koreans are putting their hope in a papal visit to their northern brothers and sisters. They seem to be waiting for the day when the pope will bring the message of peace, human rights, democracy, and reconciliation to the northern part of the Korean peninsula.

Of course, it is very unrealistic to expect a papal visit will solve the major problems the communist country faces. Furthermore, it is still unclear whether the Kim regime will extend an official invitation to the pope. For the regime, receiving the pope entails significant risks as Lord David Alton, chairman of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, pointed out. He said, “part of North Korea’s fear of Christianity stems from the successful challenge which Christians like Kim Dae-jung and Cardinal Stephen Kim made in ending the military dictatorship in South Korea.” Indeed, Thae Yong-ho, a defected former North Korean diplomat, testified in his memoir that in 1991 Kim Jong-il aborted his father, Kim Il-sung’s plan to invite Pope John Paul II to Pyongyang for fear of religious zeal fanning out in the country. It is unlikely that Pope Francis would accept Kim Jong-un’s invitation unconditionally, either. When then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung tried to broker a papal visit after the historic first inter-Korean summit in 2000, the Vatican had already sent four humanitarian delegations to aid the starved nation since 1995. And the Holy See seriously reviewed North Korea’s official invitation to Pope John Paul II. However, the Vatican insisted that the precondition of Pyongyang accepting Catholic priests must be met, which was rejected by the North.

Human rights and engagement have been the very two keywords in discussions of how to solve the North Korea problem. Human rights tend to be perceived by pro-engagers as a thorny issue to be addressed at a later time, whereas engagement is recognized by human rights advocates as a dangerous tool to prop up the North Korean regime. Each ‘bloc’ concentrated on consolidating their own logics without seriously attempting to have dialogue with each other. Hopefully the renewed discussion of a papal visit to Pyongyang will demonstrate that the two keywords should be compatible.

Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.  

Photo from Aleteia Image Department’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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