South Korea’s Moon kindles ‘long shot’ bid for Pope Francis to help reopen talks with Kim Jong Un – The Washington Post

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SEOUL — With attempts to restart nuclear negotiations with North Korea going nowhere, the president of South Korea is looking for help as his term heads into its final stretch. His long-shot hope: that Pope Francis can step in.

South Korea’s Moon kindles ‘long shot’ bid for Pope Francis to help reopen talks with Kim Jong Un – The Washington Post

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Chico Harlan December 6, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. EST16

SEOUL — With attempts to restart nuclear negotiations with North Korea going nowhere, the president of South Korea is looking for help as his term heads into its final stretch. His long-shot hope: that Pope Francis can step in.

Allies of Moon Jae-in acknowledge that direct papal intervention is unlikely. Francis has said nothing about the notion of going to Pyongyang, but he was quoted by the Blue House — the South Korean presidential palace — as being willing to go, in the name of peace, “if he received an invitation” from Kim Jong Un’s government.

During a Vatican visit in late October, Moon urged the pontiff to visit North Korea to create a “momentum for peace.” It was the second such overture by Moon, a Roman Catholic, who first proposed the visit in 2018.

Time is running out for Moon to make headway before his presidential term ends in May. The collapse of U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks and intensifying fears of the coronavirus have driven North Korea further into isolation.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a ceremony at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Nov. 25. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Moon’s allies note that Kim has shown an affinity for global exposure and say that Francis could visit as a head of state promoting peace rather than as a religious leader. And the Blue House said it is eager to help in any way it can to facilitate a future visit.

“It’s not golden timing, but I don’t want to give up that idea,” said Youngjun Kim, a professor at the Korea National Defense University and member of the presidential national security advisory board. “The idea is pretty good, because the pope . . . can make a breakthrough on the [North Korea] issue as a peacemaker.”

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Meanwhile, the pope on Monday wrapped up his third international trip since the start of the pandemic, celebrating Mass and meeting with migrants in Greece and Cyprus.

Many North Korea watchers roll their eyes at the suggestion of papal outreach to Kim. After all, North Korea relentlessly persecutes religious believers, and the supreme leader is a godlike figure.

“Put it in the basket of ‘Hail Mary’ passes that South Korean governments have hoped would be the key that unlocks North Korean cooperation,” said Victor Cha, a former top adviser on North Korea in the George W. Bush administration. “The one possibility would be if North Korea accepts the pope as an opportunity to make an international appeal for humanitarian assistance, but I would say that is a long shot.”

Human rights advocates also are skeptical of the idea.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said: “There’s no need for the pope to give President Moon Jae-in of South Korea an unconditional political gift while turning a blind eye to the suffering of the North Korean people.”

Moon’s renewed appeal to Francis underscores the lack of progress on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea and the United States are negotiating a symbolic statement calling for a formal end to the Korean War, but it is unclear whether it would be convincing enough for Pyongyang to bite.

A meeting on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics is unlikely, given the Biden administration’s potential diplomatic boycott and the International Olympic Committee’s ban on North Korea’s official participation in the Games. And, so far, there have been no public indications that North Korea might agree to Seoul’s request for an inter-Korean summit via video.

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No pope has visited North Korea, but the idea of a papal visit is not a recent one.

In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a Catholic like Moon with a similar goal of rapprochement, suggested a trip in a meeting with Pope John Paul II. Kim Dae-jung pressed the issue in a subsequent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But the proposal never gained momentum.

A trip to North Korea undoubtedly would qualify as the riskiest diplomatic gambit of Francis’s pontificate — presenting enough obstacles that some Vatican watchers think it is a bad idea.

Francis would have to operate in a country that yields no control on messaging. He would risk being used for Kim’s domestic propaganda gain. And he would face the same perils as other leaders who have tried, and failed, to soften the North’s totalitarianism.

But Francis also has shown that he can be up for a challenge. He played a behind-the-scenes role in mending ties between the United States and Cuba. He tried to mediate a conflict between South Sudan’s factions, inviting rival leaders to the Vatican and kissing their feet. He has also taken papal trips to places that others might see as too perilous. In March, he traveled by helicopter to Mosul, Iraq, celebrating Mass in the ruins of a church destroyed by the Islamic State.

“Everything’s currently in the hands of God and Kim Jong Un,” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a former editor of AsiaNews, a news service affiliated with the Vatican. “And while we trust very much in God, we don’t quite know how Kim Jong Un makes his decisions.”

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A full state visit — where Francis glad-hands with leaders and delivers homilies — is the most far-fetched scenario. But the pope has set a precedent for truncated visits, operating more as a head of state than as a pastor, as when he traveled to Strasbourg solely to address the European Parliament and upbraided the European Union for its treatment of migrants.

A South Korean Catholic priest, the Rev. Kim Yeon-su, said he hopes for such a papal diplomatic visit: “The pope’s visit would bring enormous benefits to North Korea, because he would facilitate active engagement with the Western world.”

The North Korean constitution grants nominal freedom of religious belief. But in practice, those who express freedom of belief are severely persecuted and even executed, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

There is one cathedral in the capital city, Pyongyang, the Jangchung Cathedral. But it is not recognized by the Vatican and is under tight state control. In 2015, Kim Yeon-su celebrated Mass there for about 70 people. There was a choir whose members had memorized hymns, he said. A photo of Francis hangs in the chapel, the priest said.

For Francis, another issue stands in the way of a trip: China. The Vatican has expended extraordinary diplomatic energy trying to improve ties with Beijing and gain a final say over the appointment of Catholic bishops within the Chinese system. The Vatican renewed its arrangement with Chinese authorities last year.

One senior diplomat familiar with Asia, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly on diplomatic issues, said he thought the Vatican would prioritize relations with China and avoid any outreach to a neighbor of China’s.

The diplomat said the idea of a papal trip to North Korea sounded like “political sci-fi.”

Harlan reported from Rome. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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