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The Peninsula

President Moon Proposes A Papal Visit to Pyongyang

Published November 5, 2021
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

Heads of government of the world’s 20 largest economies met in Rome for their annual G20 economic summit last week.  The G20 member countries together account for more than 80% of the world GDP, 75% of global trade, and 60% of the world’s population.  Although the organization’s 2020 summit was held virtually because of the COVID pandemic, this year the heads of government were personally in Rome.  Since the political leaders were in Rome, a number of them made a point of paying a call on the city’s most prominent resident, the Supreme Pontiff, while they were in town.

His meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden was given frontpage news coverage because of the controversy among the U.S. Roman Catholic leadership regarding the president’s worthiness to receive Holy Communion.  The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, a practicing Hindu, visited the Pontiff to invite him to visit India.  Although only 1.6% of India’s population is Roman Catholic, that is still twenty million people.  The Pope accepted the invitation in principle with details to be worked out.

Moon Jae-in’s Meeting with Pope Francis

Perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy of the private papal visits during the G20 Summit was the meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is himself Roman Catholic.  South Korea’s population is 11% Catholic, nearly 6 million people, making it one of the most heavily Catholic countries in Asia.  The principal focus of President Moon’s visit, however, was to encourage a papal visit to North Korea.  As the South Korean presidential spokesperson said, “At the meeting held in the Apostolic Palace, President Moon said, ‘If Your Holiness has the opportunity and pays a visit to North Korea, it will build momentum for peace on the Korean Peninsula.'”

Catholic News Service reported “Pope Francis responded that if he received an invitation, he would gladly visit the North for the sake of helping Koreans and the cause of peace. He went on to say that South and North Koreans are brothers who speak the same language, and that he would willingly go.”  A Vatican statement issued after the meeting said that the two sides discussed “the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans,” and the Vatican expressed the hope that “joint effort and good will may favor peace and development in the Korean peninsula, supported by solidarity and by fraternity.”

The news coverage given President Moon’s Vatican visit clearly focused on the North Korean aspect of the South Korean request.  It was also made clear that Moon was not acting on behalf of Kim Jong-un, and he was not officially extending an invitation to visit the North on Pyongyang’s behalf.

This was not the first occasion when President Moon also sought to play matchmaker in urging a papal visit to North Korea.  In October 2018, early in Moon’s presidential term, he met with the pope in Rome and extended an invitation to the pontiff to visit Pyongyang on behalf of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  On that occasion, Pope Francis said he would be available for the trip, but no trip ever materialized.

Moon Jae-in’s recent conversation with the pope regarding a visit to Pyongyang appears to be something of a “Hail Mary pass,” if one can use the American football metaphor in this context.  The South Korean President is making a diligent and creative effort to achieve a noteworthy breakthrough in his effort to improve North-South relations during the remaining months of his term in office.  He is clearly looking at his historical legacy.

The Pros and Cons of a Papal Visit for Kim Jong-un

A first papal visit to Pyongyang would have some positive benefits for Kim Jong-un.  This would represent a significant international acknowledgement of North Korea.  Just as Kim was eager to meet with former U.S. President Trump, a meeting with Pope Francis would convey legitimacy and stature for Pyongyang, and it would guarantee extensive international media attention.  Also for such a meeting, both sides could make positive statements about peace in general without Kim having to deal with difficult specifics of limiting nuclear weapons and missiles.  There would be no pressure for concessions to reach some kind of security agreement.

On the other hand, the presence in Pyongyang of the leader of the world’s largest Christian community would unquestionably raise the troublesome issue of religious freedom and human rights.  The North Korean regime is particularly sensitive on religion, especially Christianity.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea conducted probably the most thorough and well-documented study of human rights abuses in the North in 2014.  The report concluded: “The State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State.”  The North has a few government-controlled churches, but Christians are “prohibited from practicing their religion.”  People identified as practicing Christianity are subject to severe punishment and detention in forced-labor camps.  The COI concluded that there is no freedom of religion in North Korea.

The COI report detailed how North Korean authorities strictly limit the practice of religion.  The country’s constitution provides that “citizens have freedom of religious beliefs.”  In reality state authorities must approve the construction of religious buildings and even the holding of religious ceremonies.  Laws provide that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State and social order.”  The UN COI report concluded that “apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from practicing their religion and are persecuted.”

In August of this year, the UN Secretary General in a report to the General Assembly reaffirmed that North Korea “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.”

The results are predictable.  The number of Roman Catholics in the North does not exceed 3,000, and only 70 to 80 attend Sunday services at the one Catholic Church building in the country where such meetings are known to take place.  At the time of the liberation from Japan in 1945 it was estimated that at least 55,000 Catholics lived in what became North Korea.  Pyongyang was previously known as the “Jerusalem of the East,” and Christian missionary schools in Pyongyang were highly regarded.  Less well known, and certainly no longer mentioned in the North, the parents of Kim Il-sung (great grandfather of Kim Jong-un) were devout Christians.

With attention in the North focused on the impact of economic sanctions as well as its draconian policies to prevent spread of the COVID virus, Kim Jong-un’s attention is likely laser focused on very serious domestic concerns.  Furthermore, a high-profile papal visit would focus unwanted attention on religious freedom issues in the North, which could create problems for North Korea internationally, as well as domestically.

Despite President Moon Jae-in pressing the question of a papal visit to Pyongyang and the positive (though guarded) response of Pope Francis, it may still be a bit early to request a ticket for a papal mass at Changchung Cathedral in the North Korean capital.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017).  The views expressed here are his own.  

Image from the Republic of Korea via Twitter.

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