Pope Francis may meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next year, after being invited by South Korean President Moon Jae In during a meeting at the Vatican. During the 35 minute meeting, President Moon relayed a message from the North Korean leader. The meeting would be a first for a Pope. No Pope has ever visited the reclusive nation, which has openly persecuted many religious faiths, including Catholicism.
The country, on the surface, says that it permits religious freedom — and even has its own version of a Catholic Church — which is not formally part of the Vatican, and is not under the influence or control of the Pope in Rome. It is called the Catholic Church of North Korea, and was created to control the influence the Catholic Church had in North Korea. It is, obviously, controlled by the government of North Korea.
Open worship is not permitted, other than in state controlled religious centers and government sponsored religions. North Korea also has one of the worst records of religious persecution, in particular of Christians, and the Pope’s visit would be surprising for some, but could offer hope that things are changing for Catholics within the country.
Is there a change in North Korean diplomacy? There does seem to be a large shift in North Korean diplomacy at work. Important first meetings seem to be happening at a fast pace compared to the decades of isolation for North Korea. The president and Kim Jong Un have an open and ongoing dialogue, as opposed to closed communications of past presidents, and more change seems to be on the horizon. The Pope’s visit will add the list of changes in diplomacy coming to the Korean Peninsula.
The meeting is also important in the wider context of North Korea and its changes in diplomacy this past year. With first meetings between the North and South, and an important and historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un — who met for the first time in June of 2018, in Singapore, and was well covered by the media as the first time leaders from the United States and North Korea have met in person since the Korean War. They currently have plans to meet again at some point next year, according to President Trump.
There have been some minor setbacks amid the year of historic meetings, of course. Such as this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol in New York. The meeting was canceled without any reason. According to some reports, this meeting, although important, was thought to have finalized pieces of an agreement before the next meeting with President Trump and Kim Jong Un.
They still protest any coordination between the United States and South Korean militaries, however. It shows that, at the very least, there are cracks in the North Korean stance on isolation — unwilling to meet with anyone it thinks may pose any threat or disagree in any way in the way it conducts itself and its internal affairs.
What will 2019 bring for the Korean Peninsula? The Korean Peninsula remains tense, but the dialogue between several countries and North Korea is promising… although there are many tense issues between North Korea and the world. The meeting with President Trump at an as yet to be determined date, and the visit of the Pope to North Korea, are both sure to bring in a big year for the reclusive state.
The wheels are set in motion for more ties and cooperation between the two Koreas. While some setbacks are expected, they have made great gains in securing a more peaceful environment. Total nuclear disarmament needs to be accomplished and finalized, but hopefully the Pope’s visit will add yet another positive meeting to the list of historic firsts between world leaders and North Korea.
This also comes after China has extended an invitation, albeit from the Catholic Bishops, to have the Pope in a historic visit to China, as well, this coming year. Japan is also on the list of countries coming up for the Pope to visit, so it is well within possibility that such an important first between Pope Francis and Kim Jong Un happens in 2019.