ROME — South Korea’s president thanked Pope Francis for promoting peace and dialogue on Wednesday as he arrived in Italy for a papal audience, where he’s expected to extend an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for Francis to visit.
President Moon Jae-in meets with Francis on Thursday. He spends Wednesday meeting with Italian leaders and attending an evening “Mass for Peace” in St. Peter’s Basilica along with the pope’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
Moon signed a broad agreement with Kim last month meant to reduce military tensions on the peninsula. Moon’s office has reported that during the summit, Kim said the pope would be “enthusiastically” welcomed in North Korea — a message he is due to deliver at Thursday’s audience.
In an article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Moon praised Francis for his promotion of dialogue and said he hoped that the Korean peace initiative could also help the Vatican forge relations with the North.
“In recent months, the pope’s prayer and blessing have given the Korean people great encouragement and hope on the path to peace,” Moon wrote. He noted that when he traveled to Pyongyang in September for the summit, he was joined by a Korean Catholic bishop to try to improve relations between the church in North and South.
North Korea strictly controls the religious activities of its people, and a similar invitation for then-Pope John Paul II to visit after a 2000 inter-Korean summit never resulted in a meeting. The Vatican insisted at the time that a papal visit would only be possible if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.
Francis, however, has taken a less-absolutist approach in the Holy See’s diplomacy, as evidenced by the recent deal over bishop nominations signed with China, North Korea’s closest ally. Previous popes had refused to cut a deal with China’s communist leaders, who allow religious practice only in state-sanctioned churches.
The Church’s priests were expelled by North Korea long ago and state-appointed laymen officiate services. Estimates of the number of North Korean Catholics range from 800 to about 3,000, compared to more than 5 million in South Korea.
Following an unusually provocative run of weapons tests last year, Kim has been on a diplomatic offensive since the start of this year, which included the meeting with Moon and one with President Donald Trump.