Pope Francis’ Visit to South Korea

Pope FrancisAt the start of a five-day visit to South Korea, his first trip to Asia, Pope Francis has called for peace and unity on the war-divided Korean peninsula, asking for both sides to avoid “fruitless” conflict and offering a message of reconciliation.  About an hour before Francis landed in Seoul, North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast, followed by two others shortly thereafter.  So far this year, North Korea has conducted several such tests, and has a long history of making sure that South Korea doesn’t forget about its neighbor.

Neither Francis nor South Korean President Park Geun-hye have referred to the firings in their speeches at Seoul, and the Vatican spokesman looked to downplay the incident by saying he wasn’t even sure that the Pope had been told.  In his speech to South Korea, Francis told Park, government officials and regional diplomats that peace requires justice, which in turn requires forgiveness, cooperation and mutual respect, and diplomacy must be encouraged so that listening and dialogue could replace the current situation.  This was also the first speech in which Francis spoke in English; he typically speaks either in Italian or his native Spanish, although the Vatican said that he would deliver his speeches in English to accommodate Asian audiences.

North Korea has expressed its anger over annual military drills between South Korea and US, which it claims to be preparations for invasion.  The US and South Korea, on the other hand, insist that such drills are merely “routine and defensive”, and shall be conducting a new round of them in a few days.  This Saturday, Francis shall beatify 124 Korean martyrs who founded the first Catholic church in the area in the 18th century, in hopes that he can give South Korea’s growing church new models for holiness and evangelization.  Upon landing in Seoul, Francis stepped into a small, black Kia car that shocked many in the status-conscious city, where such a car would be considered too humble for somebody of the Pope’s stature.  However, Francis prefers simple cars.

Francis’ main reason for visiting South Korea is to participate in an Asian Catholic youth festival.  Tomorrow, he shall be traveling to Daejeon for his first encounter with the thousands of Catholics who have flocked to South Korea for the Asian version of World Youth Day.  However, organizers said that many Chinese Catholics were prevented from coming to the event.  This was due to the tense relations between China and the Vatican, who haven’t had diplomatic ties since 1951.  However, there was a small breakthrough overnight after Francis sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew through Chinese airspace.  The last time a Pope tried to get to South Korea was in 1989, when St. John Paul II was refused permission to fly over China.

Park said that he hoped the Pope’s presence would help heal the division between North and South Korea, which is still deeply affecting both countries; the border between the two countries is one of the most heavily-guarded in the world.  There has been a lot of anticipation in South Korea ahead of the visit; banners and posters welcoming Francis decorated streets and subway stations, and there has been a spike in the sales of rosaries and other Catholic goods, while special displays of books on the Pope and Catholicism have sprung up in book stores.