North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is formally inviting Pope Francis to visit his country for the first time. The South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae explained that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that he would “most ardently welcome the pope’s visit to Pyongyang” in response to President Moon Jae-in's suggestion to arrange the Catholic leader’s visit to the North. President Moon will visit Pope Francis on October 18 on the leg of his visit to Europe to deliver Kim’s invitation.
It is unclear whether Pope Francis would accept the invitation. By principle, pope does not visit areas where no Catholic priests are present. North Korea had previously invited pope in 1991 when the socialist regime collapsed, but the visit was unsuccessful as the Vatican demanded the North to bring actual believers. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung made a similar proposal in 2000 to no avail. However, Pope Francis has expressed deep interest in inter-Korean issues, expressing his hope for a “fruitful outcome of the inter-Korean talks” prior to the Panmunjom summit on April 27 this year. The Pontiff is also known for his special role in appeasing relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014.
Kim’s invitation appears as a series of efforts to normalize the state, which has been promoted since earlier this year. The North Korean leader is working to position North Korea as a "normal state where freedom of religion is ensured and peace is promoted," diluting the country’s image as an isolated country of nuclear provocation. Whatever his intentions may be, the pope's visit to North Korea itself would become an opportunity to call global attention to North Korean human rights and religious oppression. It will also generate pressure on the North to refrain from blatant displays of terror, such as public execution and assassination.
However, we should keep in mind that peace issues on the Korean Peninsula are distinctly different from other areas of conflict. In other areas where hostility and prejudice had removed peace, unconditional reconciliation and messages of love may restore peace. However, peace has been held hostage on the Korean Peninsula due to North Korea’s nuclear developments. If unconditional reconciliation and restoration is emphasized and such conditions ignored, we may convey a misleading message of recognizing and accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea. If the pope’s visit is carefully arranged in light of special conditions on the peninsula, hope may shine on the world’s worst human rights violator and sow seeds for religious freedom.