SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) – Pope Francis will meet with President Park Geun-hye and attend a gathering of Catholic youths from more than a dozen Asian nations in his first visit to South Korea this August, Seoul's presidential office said Monday.
The Aug. 14-18 visit by the symbol of modest living and neighborly love will be a good opportunity to spread a message of love and peace not only to the Korean Peninsula, but also Northeast Asia, presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said.
During the trip, the pope will meet with Park and attend the 6th Asian Youth Day in the central city of Daejeon. Catholic followers from more than 15 countries are expected to attend the Aug. 13-17 event, Min said. Pope Francis will be the first pope to attend the gathering of Catholic youths.
The trip will also be the third such visit here by a pope since Pope John Paul II's last visit in 1989.
During his stay, the pope will also carry out a beatification ceremony for the 124 Korean martyrs – Paul Yun Ji-chung and others who were killed in the late 18th century for renouncing Confucianism, the ruling ideology of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
South Korea's Catholic church hailed the announcement.
"We wholeheartedly welcome Pope Francis' visit to South Korea and appreciate him for deciding to travel so far to be with Asian youth and Korean Catholic followers," Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, South Korea's newly appointed cardinal, said in a statement.
"I feel God's grace from his decision," he said, adding that the trip would be a "big pleasure" and "blessing" for the nation.
Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, said the visit would be a "big first stride toward world peace."
"I think his choice of the divided Korean Peninsula as the destination of his first Asian trip came out of his aspiration for peace on the peninsula and the rest of the world and his hope to pray together with Asian youths," Kang said.
The two Koreas remain technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
Although the Korean Catholic church has a short history of just over 200 years, some 10,000 Koreans are believed to have died for their faith in the church's early period here.
As of 2011, there were 5.52 million Catholics in South Korea, the fifth most in Asia and 47th worldwide.