BY: ANDY LAUB
On Thursday, October 18th South Korean President Moon Jae-In, in a visit to the Vatican, passed along an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to Pope Francis, inviting him to visit Pyongyang in the near future; the Holy Father appears to be open to the idea. Kim Jong-Un, on the other hand, continues to build himself up as a world leader by hosting a series of major leaders such as U.S President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and of course President Moon. Now, with his efforts to meet with Pope Francis, many Korea watchers are left wondering what Kim’s true intentions really are. Is he seriously committed to getting rid of his nuclear weapons program and opening the DPRK to the outside world? Or is it yet another North Korean apparition to divert the world’s attention and use as a part of their propaganda to boast themselves as a global power? There are many experts on both sides, who disagree for good reason, especially when nobody knows how this latest diplomatic saga will end.
The Pope himself praised President Moon’s efforts on engagement and peace on the Korean peninsula telling him “Do not stop, move forward. Do not be afraid.” Additionally, South Korean Bishop MSGR Lazzaro You Heung-Sik said such a Papal visit will be a “gigantic step towards toward peace…and move North Korea in the direction of becoming a normal country.” However, not everyone agrees, Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and author of “In Order to Live” who escaped from North Korea when she was 13, tweeted the article about the Pope considering a visit to the DPRK commenting: “Truly disgusting.” Many can understand both perspectives and reasons to be skeptical of Kim’s perceived intentions; the North Korean regime has been so openly hostile to organized religion and has regularly jailed Christian Missionaries along with a horrid human rights record, when simultaneously human rights have been a central theme of Pope Francis’ message.
This meeting with the Pope, however, has the propensity to be very different than previous ones with Presidents Moon, Xi or Trump. There has always been a sour taste left in many people’s mouths seeing Kim Jon-Un toast champagne and eat steak with leaders of free society, while his own people struggle against food and water scarcity. At present, approximately 200,000 people continue to be imprisoned in the world’s largest and only remaining concentration camp system in North Korea. Political and diplomatic maneuvering aside, Pope Francis’ visit could draw attention and criticism amidst the domestic social conditions. Needless to say, it would rest on his Holiness the extent to which he chooses to criticize the North Korean tactics. But the Pope’s visit would be a departure from the usual rhetoric of nuclear weapons and political gerrymandering.
As he writes in his book “The World As It Is”, former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes under President Obama was leading the secret opening with Cuba. It was his idea to bring Pope Francis into the process, given he was a neutral party yet such a significant figure that made a huge impact. Rhodes’ Cuban counterpart Alejandro Castro (Raul’s Son) told him at the time he raised the idea “Papa Francisco? Well now that changes everything.” Recognizing the huge differences in challenges in international relations between Cuba and North Korea, Pope Francis is a one of a kind figure. He is a man of peace, perceived to be extremely principled and cares deeply about human rights, poverty and suffering. A meeting with him would not be like the ones with Trump, Xi or Moon, since he may more leverage confronting the regime on its human rights agenda. When Pope Francis visited the Middle East, a region filled with volatility and divisiveness, he brought together all sides as he stood jointly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Again, acknowledging the differences between the Middle East and Korea, perhaps the Pope could play a role of peace again on the Peninsula? We don’t know how it will work out, unless it is tried, North Korea is the greatest global challenge in the world but then again-“Papa Francisco, that changes everything.”
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.