Pope Francis in Pyongyang? An intelligence chief is working to make it happen

North Korean flags in Pyongyang. / John Pavelka via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Rome Newsroom, Jul 7, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis could visit Pyongyang, according to the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, who said that he was working with Church leaders to make a papal trip to North Korea possible.

Park Jie-won, the director of the South Korean central intelligence agency, spoke at a Mass on July 5 celebrating the designation of Sanjeongdong Church in Mokpo, South Korea as a minor basilica.

“The special reason I came here today is that Archbishop Kim Hee-jong [of Gwangju], the Apostolic Nuncio to South Korea Alfred Xuereb, and I are working to organize a papal visit to Pyongyang,” Park said.

“Please pray that the pope will visit Pyongyang and bring peace to our Korean Peninsula.”

The South Korean intelligence chief can be seen making the comments in a video of the Mass posted online by Korea’s Catholic Peace Broadcasting News Channel.

Park played a critical role in facilitating the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. His meeting with the archbishop of Gwangju and the papal ambassador to Korea supports the comments made last month by South Korean Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik that Pope Francis would like to visit North Korea.

Shortly after Pope Francis appointed Bishop You as the Vatican prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, the Korean bishop said at a press conference that Pope Francis had expressed a desire to visit North Korea.

“The pope has said he wants to go to North Korea,” he said on June 12.

“If I am given a role to arrange his visit to North Korea, I’ll do my best to carry out my mission.”

The possibility of a papal trip to North Korea was first raised in 2018 when a South Korean government spokesman said that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he would “greatly welcome” a papal visit to Pyongyang.

Bishop You, who has made multiple trips to North Korea on behalf of the South Korean bishops’ conference, said at the Synod of Bishops press briefing in Rome in 2018 that it would be “beautiful” if there could be a papal visit to North Korea, but “in reality, there are many steps to take.”

North Korea has consistently been ranked as the worst country for persecution of Christians by the charity Open Doors. Christians within the atheist state have faced arrest, re-education in labor camps, or, in some cases, execution for their faith.

A United Nations investigation in 2014 produced a 372-page report that documented crimes against humanity, including execution, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, forced abortions, and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

Pyongyang was once referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East” and was considered a center of Christianity in Northeast Asia.

Just before the Korean War broke out in 1950, many priests in North Korea were captured, killed, or disappeared, according to the Korean Bishops’ Conference.

In 1988, the “Korean Catholic Association,” created by the communist government, registered 800 members. This association is not recognized by the Vatican, but is one of three state-sponsored churches that operate in North Korea under the strict supervision of the communist authorities.

Mass is occasionally offered in Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral when a foreign priest is on an official visit to the country. But on Sundays, a Liturgy of the Word is often celebrated instead by a state-appointed layperson. The Catholic See of Pyongyang is vacant and the last bishop was appointed in March 1944. There are no local Catholic clerics in North Korea.

Despite the lack of religious freedom inside North Korean, defectors have discovered the Catholic faith after fleeing the hermit kingdom.

“If the pope goes there he will make a gigantic step, a qualitative step for the Korean peninsula,” Bishop You said in 2018.

“But before you do something you have to do the groundwork. When the groundwork is done, the pope can go,” he told journalists.