ROME—Pope Francis is waiting for an invitation that he knows he’s going to get: a handwritten letter from King Jong Un opening the way for the pontiff to visit North Korea.
Like so many of Kim’s initiatives meant to make him appear to the outside world as a moderate and a reformer, this one reportedly was negotiated by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. He will hand deliver the letter to Francis next week.
Moon’s spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom says the purpose of the October 17-18 trip to the Vatican is to “reaffirm its blessing and support for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” And when Moon meets with the pope, “he will convey Chairman Kim’s message that he will ardently welcome him if he visits Pyongyang.”
Moon, himself a devout Roman Catholic, presumably will invite the pontiff to come back to South Korea as well. Francis made a very successful apostolic voyage there in 2014. And all this might take place as part of a trip to Japan that is already in the works for a yet-unspecified date in 2019.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke would not speculate whether Francis would take Kim up on the pending offer, saying instead, “Let’s wait until the invitation arrives.”
That buys the Vatican a little time, but not much, to determine under what circumstances such an apostolic visit could occur.
North Korea’s record on religious freedom is beyond dismal. It is impossible for Catholics there to practice their faith openly, except as part of shows of supposed tolerance staged by the Kim regime. Apart from such charades, Christianity has been totally forbidden in North Korea since the rise of Kim Il Sung, Jong Un’s grandfather, after Soviet forces took over the northern half of the Korean peninsula after the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
“Kim could easily order a crowd out to welcome the pope,” David Straub, a former senior diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Seoul, told The Daily Beast, invoking images of Kim and Francis sitting in the back of a limousine while the pope dispenses blessings on the throngs.
The manipulation wouldn’t end there. “If he visits, it would give additional legitimacy to Kim Jong Un,” Tara O, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and scholar on North Korea told The Daily Beast. “It would appear that Kim Jong Un's human rights atrocities do not matter to the pope or the world.”
In fact, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the pope will accept the invitation.
North Korea has a long history of presenting a limited Christian face to foreigners when it is convenient, even convincing unwary visitors that freedom of religion, as enshrined in the country’s constitution, actually prevails. Official Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches exist to prove such faux freedom exists. In reality, those caught holding Christian services in secret hideaways, or just hefting a Bible, are subject to imprisonment, torture and execution.
No one has dared to profess openly belief in any god other than members of the Kim dynasty since Kim Il Sung cracked down on organized religion. All the churches in Pyongyang, which had been known historically as “the Jerusalem of the East” even in the 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, were closed. Bombing of the capital and most other cities during the Korean War destroyed what was left of them, and they never had a prayer of reopening.
Eventually, by the grace of Kim Il Sung, one Catholic and two Protestant churches in Pyongyang were allowed. An Orthodox church was opened after Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, visited the Russian far east in 2002. All are tightly controlled, regarded as Potemkin churches built for the benefit of foreign visitors and members of the foreign community, including diplomats and aid workers, in Pyongyang. The Catholic Church has no priests and is not recognized, although Archbishop Celestino Migliore, then Vatican undersecretary of state, visited Pyongyang in 1999.
Given the country’s harsh reprisals against any challenge to worship of the Kim dynasty, analysts see Moon’s suggestion that Kim invite the pope as playing right into Kim’s hands.
“Of course, this whole idea came from President Moon to help make Kim seem like a reasonable and decent person,” says Straub. “How quickly we forget that Kim murdered both his uncle and his brother, not to mention that he has 100,000 people in concentration camps!”
The pope is no fool and would not walk blindly into a North Korean apostolic visit, but it could be a temptation.
What if the pope by his presence turned out to be a little more than Kim had bargained for? How about if some of those carefully selected people lining the route in from the airport, and maybe seeing him in Pyongyang’s lone Catholic church, or perhaps as he addressed a crowd of the faithful, decided to worship God instead of Kim?
And what if the pope bestowed a blessing on Kim’s own bowed head—and the heads of his wife, sister and maybe a few others—in front of the Vatican’s television cameras, which record everything the pope does to be distributed to news outlets traveling with him?
That’s a possibility that one of North Korea’s best known defectors, Ji Seong-ho, sees as maybe making the papal mission worthwhile.
“I am for the pope’s visit to North Korea,” Ji said at a forum on human rights at the National Press Club in Washington. “I would like the pope to pray for the ‘god’ known as Kim Jong Un. I would like the North Korean people to see the pope lay his hand on Kim’s head and pray for him. That would be very meaningful.” Praying “for” is not at all the same as praying “to.”
U.S. President Donald Trump singled out Ji in the audience in his state of the union address in January, saying his suffering was “testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” The image of Ji holding up his crutches to the applause of all the Republican and most of the Democratic members of Congress burns in the memory of the millions who saw him on television as living evidence of what thousands of North Koreans are going through.
Kim could easily fill all 150,000 seats in May Day Stadium for the same sort of spectacle with which he regaled Moon during his recent visit and “have the pope speak to the crowd,” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told the Daily Beast.
Scarlatoiu predicts Kim “will remind the pope that North Korea is a paradise of human rights, and North Koreans are free to worship as they wish. The pope could bless everyone in the stadium. The photos of the pope blessing the crowd would be overwhelming.” Still, Kim would probably have to explain to the crowd who the pope is, Scarlatoiu says. “But that is not a problem.”
Since no North Koreans “have been baptized or confirmed by an ordained priest,” says Scarlatoiu, “holy communion would be a tough one.” Kim might get around it, he suggests, by setting up “a few Potemkin churches” and running parishioners through “ideological training.”
If Francis does choose to accept the invitation, he will undoubtedly juggle the difficult diplomacy as he has done in the past through a sort of compromise that angered some while pleasing others.
On a visit to Myanmar last year, Francis chose not to use the word “Rohingya” in public so as not to offend his host country, opting instead to wait to refer to the oppressed Muslim population by name when he visited Rohingya refugees personally in Dhaka later in the trip.
But would the pope use the opportunity that a North Korea visit might offer, either in setting conditions for the trip or during such an event if it were to take place, to ask that the half a dozen South Korean Christian citizens who are in jail for proselytizing among the people while on missions to dispense food be released? That’s by no means certain considering that he neglected to mention the issue of human rights during his mission to South Korea in 2014.
David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former professor at Georgetown University, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is not optimistic.
“It’s possible that Kim will not be able to totally control the message,” says Maxwell. “The pope could be inspirational and give the people hope and those true believers will be strengthened and perhaps their influence among their fellow citizens will be enhanced and they will increasingly spread their beliefs among the people.”
Still, Maxwell notes, “The trip would be tightly controlled and would be designed as a propaganda coup for Kim to further enhance his legitimacy.” The message, he says, “would be that the pope came to kowtow to Kim Jong Un,” and Maxwell doubts that “any true believing Catholic in the north would get near the pope.”
To many, a papal mission to North Korea would seem a distinctly mixed blessing—one that might break down barriers, or, conversely, reinforce Kim’s grip over his people and his influence over Moon.
Donald Kirk reported from Washington, D.C. Barbie Latza Nadeau reported from Rome.