Kim Jong-un invites pope to Pyongyang
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has invited Pope Francis to visit his country, according to South Korean officials.
Kim told his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, at a summit last month that he would “ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang”, according to a spokesman for the presidential Blue House. Moon, who is Catholic, will visit Europe for a nine-day trip beginning on 13 October. He will meet the Pope and intends to relay the invitation.
The desire to welcome the leader of the Catholic church comes as Kim attempts to transform his image from paranoid head of a rogue state to young and dynamic world leader. This week, he held talks with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, where Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said he “explained in detail the proposals for solving the denuclearisation issue”, although no details were provided.
Kim’s push for greater global recognition is also aimed at softening his image and weakening the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign. North Korea and the Vatican do not have diplomatic ties.
During the inter-Korean summit last month, Moon was accompanied by the South Korean archbishop, Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, and during a conversation Kim said he wanted the pope to know his desire for peace, according to a presidential spokesman.
Although freedom of religion is protected under North Korea’s constitution, in practice worship is tightly controlled and limited to state-run institutions.
In an annual report on religious freedom around the world, the US state department described dire circumstances for the faithful, where “the government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests”.
Pyongyang was previously home to a vibrant Christian community, earning it the nickname “Jerusalem of the east” before the founding of North Korea. When Pope Francis visited South Korea in 2014, he held a mass in Seoul dedicated to reunification of the two Koreas.