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Papal visit is up to NK, unification minister says

Pope Francis (center) greets the faithful the end of the weekly general audience, at Paul-VI hall in the Vatican on Wednesday. (AFP-Yonhap)
Pope Francis (center) greets the faithful the end of the weekly general audience, at Paul-VI hall in the Vatican on Wednesday. (AFP-Yonhap)
South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee In-young on Thursday said the envisioned papal visit to North Korea is a real possibilty, and that it hinges on Pyongyang’s determination. 

The minister accompanied President Moon Jae-in to his meeting with Pope Francis last week at the Vatican. During their talks, Moon asked the pope to visit the North to help build “momentum for peace” on the Korean Peninsula. In response, the pope, calling the two Koreas “brothers who speak the same language,” said he would “gladly visit” for the sake of peace, if he received an invitation from Pyongyang. 

“The pope has repeatedly expressed his willingness to visit North Korea. So the possibility of a papal visit to the North definitely exists if the North makes a determination,” Lee said during a radio interview with local broadcaster KBS. 

He added that the details for a possible papal visit need to be sorted out between the Vatican and Pyongyang. “Rather than making any rush judgments, our job is to make efforts to create conditions so that the pope could make a big step towards peace on the peninsula,” said Lee. 

Moon, a Roman Catholic, first floated a possible papal visit in October 2018, when he relayed to the pope a verbal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At that time, the pope expressed his willingness to visit and said he would consider it if he received an official invitation. 

But the proposal was never realized amid deadlocked denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington. 

Seoul believes a rare papal visit to the closed-off country could play a critical role in reviving the stalled peace process on the peninsula. Seoul and Washington have been calling for Pyongyang to return to dialogue since early this year, but the regime has remained largely unresponsive. 

“North Korea’s messages toward South Korea and the US have become more detailed, and more frequent in the second half of the year, in comparison to the first half,” said Lee, stressing the North appears to be gradually willing to engage in dialogue. 

In regards to possibly providing COVID-19 vaccines to the North, Lee stressed that the provision can come only when South Korean citizens are sufficiently vaccinated and have secured enough doses, and when public consent is established. 

“When that time arrives, we can closely communicate with Washington over the matter,” he said.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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