ROME — The South Korean government is encouraging Pyongyang to accept a proposal that Pope Francis visit North Korea, after the pope expressed his readiness to do so.
“As the pope’s willingness to visit North Korea has been reaffirmed, we hope the North would respond and pave the way for fostering peace on the Korean Peninsula,” South Korean unification ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-joo told a press briefing Monday morning.
Last Friday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Pope Francis in the Vatican where he told the pontiff that a papal visit to North Korea would serve to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The pope responded he was willing to go to North Korea if he received an invitation.
Moon first met Pope Francis in 2018, at which time he delivered a verbal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit the country.
The South Korean unification ministry said last week that a visit by Francis to North Korea would “greatly contribute” to securing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“We believe the pope’s North Korea visit, if materialized, will greatly contribute to building peace on the Korean Peninsula, and thus we have maintained a position to provide support to realize the visit if related discussions make progress,” Lee said.
A visit to North Korea by Pope Francis would mark the first papal visit ever to the North, where Christianity is illegal.
In its World Watch List 2021, Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors placed North Korea at the very top of a list of nations where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
Driven by a virulent atheistic Communist ideology, North Korea has led the list for the past 20 years. The North Korean government considers the estimated 400,000 Christians in the country as traitors to the state because their allegiance is to God, not to supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea and if you aren’t killed on the spot, you will be taken to a labor camp as a political criminal, the Watch List noted.
Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly expanded the system of prison camps, in which an estimated 50,000-70,000 Christians are currently confined, where inmates suffer horrific conditions, including starvation and physical and mental abuse.