President Moon Jae-in is also pressing to hold talks with Pope Francis during the G20 summit to be held in Rome in October to discuss the pope's possible visit to the North. "I believe Moon is unswervingly working for a meeting with the pope," a source familiar with the issue told The Korea Times.
Moon has been making strong efforts to realize the papal visit to the North. As Moon is set to end his term in May next year, time is running out for him to make progress in his much-touted initiative of rekindling a peace process on the Korean Peninsula. During his visit to a monastery in Austria in June, Moon said, "I believe Pope Francis' visit to the North will surely take place someday."
Moon also met with Wilton Cardinal Gregory during his visit to the United States on the sidelines of his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, apparently to boost support for the pope's visit to the North. During the G7 meeting, Moon also met with many Catholic leaders toward that end.
Pope Francis has also been eager to visit Pyongyang. For starters, he appointed Lazarus You Heung-sik as the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. It was the first time for a Korean to be appointed to a significant ministerial post in the Vatican. Italy's news media interpreted You's naming as the pope's unwavering willingness to visit North Korea. You had a significant role in coordinating the papal visit to Seoul in 2014 and has said his most important role with the new post will be realizing the pope's visit to Pyongyang.
Italy's daily La Republica reported in its July 7 edition that the pope will possibly visit Lebanon and North Korea. Park Jie-won, chief of the National Intelligence Service, said, "We are working on Pope Francis' North Korea visit," at a Mass in Mokpo July 5. Before the Mass, Park met with Vatican Ambassador to Korea Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, who served as a papal secretary, purportedly to discuss the issue.
The possible papal visit has been a topic of significant interest since October 2018 when President Moon conveyed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's wish to invite the pope to Pyongyang. The plan, however, lost steam, affected by the rupture of the Hanoi summit between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2019.
The ongoing joint military drills between South Korea and the United States, though scaled down, and possible repercussions from North Korea are clouding the mood of detente on the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the North's reaction was gentler than expected. "I believe the situation will turn to normal after the drills," said Yang Moo-jin, a renowned North Korea expert. He said Kim may welcome Moon's endeavors to realize the papal visit, recalling Kim already revealed his wishes to invite the pope in 2018.
What seems to put matters into a delicate balance will be the lingering coronavirus pandemic. After the pandemic slows down, there will be proactive efforts toward the papal visit to Pyongyang. Kim may have many advantages to take from the visit. First, the event will steal the global spotlight and enhance the North's image as a normal state. For instance, Cuba managed to re-establish diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 2015, riding on the coattails of its papal visit.
Second, the pope's visit will facilitate Kim's bids to receive international assistance to tackle the food shortage and eased international restrictions. It is Pope Francis who may take flak for his plan to visit due to the allegation North Korea has no religious freedom and suppresses relevant activities. Yet the pope may not worry about such criticism, as seen in his past visits to dangerous and conflict-ridden regions for the sake of promoting peace and reconciliation.
Opposition will likely flare up in the U.S., centering on conservative hawkish figures. Yet, the administration of Joe Biden, himself a Catholic, has been backing inter-Korean cooperation and reconciliation. The U.S. should extend support for the pope's envisaged visit to the North.
It is time for Kim to make a crucial determination. Why not invite the pope?
Shim Jae-yun (email@example.com) is an editorial writer of The Korea Times.