A Summit for Pope Francis and Kim Jong-Un?
Editorial by Johannes Klausa, National Director of ACN Korea
Last year in October, US President Donald Trump tweeted out to the world: “being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it now?” Just months before he had called North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “little rocket man” and threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
One year later, the tone on the Korean peninsula changed completely. The two Korean leaders have met three times after a peace- and charm offensive before and during the Olympic Winter Games paving the way for summits, family reunions, as well as a considerable amount of political and cultural exchange. Donald Trump also held a summit with Kim, now publicly praising his personality, calling him “very talented,” “a smart cookie,” and said he wants to see him again after the elections.
The latest development in this almost theatrical performance: Kim Jong-Un reportedly would “enthusiastically” welcome the Holy Father, if he would be willing to visit Pyeongyang. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is en route to the Vatican next week, carrying in his briefcase an invitation for the Pontiff.
All this is a good reason to get excited, but not for everyone in Korea to applaud enthusiastically.
Although a majority of Koreans, especially the younger generation, seems euphoric about this prospect, there are voices heard, which would not welcome the Holy Father’s visit to the North. Many question the true motives and willingness of the “Young Marshal” to break with the politics of his father and grandfather. They doubt he would give up his nuclear arsenal and lead his country towards peace and reconciliation.
For them, a Papal visit to Pyeongyang would look as if the Catholic Church would forgive crimes against humanity as well as the persecution of Christians even before the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Crimes have undoubtedly been committed by the brutal Kim dictatorship in the past. The Catholic Church, in the eyes of the critics, should be the advocate of the regime’s victims and denounce its crimes, rather than helping Kim to polish his negative image and offering a stepping-stone onto the world-stage and into the presidential palaces of the international community.
However, until now, nothing substantial has happened. The Vatican has not accepted the invitation. Neither is it the first time that Pyongyang called for a Papal visit. During the period of political rapprochement and the so-called “sunshine-policy” of former president Kim Dae-jung at the beginning of the new Millennium, Pope John Paul II was also invited to visit the DPRK. But the Holy Father did not accept.
If Pope Francis should take the decision to travel to Pyeongyang, he would not do so naively. He could demand concessions, such as the acceptance of a permanent presence of priests in North Korea. Or, he could promise to come after “verifiable and irreversible” progress in other fields.
Should he accept the invitation, this would certainly not happen without a previous series of unofficial contacts and negotiations. The president of the Korean Bishop’s Conference and other religious leaders were also part of the delegation that personally met Kim Jong-un last month. Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-jong has already been to Pyeongyang with a delegation of South Korean bishops and priests a few years ago and was appointed presidential “special envoy to the Vatican” by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who is himself a devout Catholic. Therefore, all critics can rest assured the Holy Father will take an elaborate and well-informed decision.
The Archbishop of Seoul and president of ACN Korea, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, who is also Apostolic Administrator of Pyeongyang, recently said he was “waiting for the day” when he could send missionaries, priests as well as monks and nuns to North Korea, so that he could celebrate the sacraments together with them. He continued: “I knew that Pope Francis has a lot of concern for peace on the Korea Peninsula and that he prayed several times for us. So, I want all these efforts to work like a trigger for a ‘self-priming pump’ for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
“When the groundwork is done, the Pope can go”, Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, another Korean bishop close to the Holy Father is quoted. The Holy Father’s visit would be a “gigantic step, a qualitative step for the Korean peninsula, for its pacification,” he said.
Catholics, regardless of their political views, should always trust that Our Lord will also watch carefully over these developments. Let us pray that – should Pope Francis make a historic journey to Pyongyang – will hold not only bilateral talks with Kim Jong-un but a trilateral summit led by the Holy Spirit. And that the Holy Spirit will guide the way to peace and stability in Korea and beyond.