Last month, Pope Francis surprised his global flock when he said he would, if officially invited, visit North Korea. The unofficial invitation, relayed to the Holy See by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a state visit to Europe, is reported to have come directly from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In doing so, Kim Jong Un continues his successful diplomatic overtures on the International Stage, while the Pope gives Korean diplomacy a new word: forget Track 1 and Track 2, now we have Track “See.”
But talk is cheap and the road to Pyongyang is paved with good intentions and failed initiatives. Could a papal visit really happen?
Recent months have thankfully seen summits, not missiles, flying thick and fast. Kim Jong Un has remolded his international image from “little rocket man” to accomplished diplomat, seeking and getting summits with leaders the previous Kims eschewed. He’s making K-pop heart-signs with Moon Jae-in. And Donald Trump is in love with him.
Meeting the Pope is almost the next logical step, one which Kim Jong Un embraces in both softening his image and cementing his newfound international legitimacy.
Francis, meanwhile, has spent the first five years of his papacy standing up for refugees, washing the feet of the poor, driving little fiats, and generally making himself popular.
Unlike his more conservative predecessor, he has boldly waded into the morass of international diplomacy, and his overwhelming public support afford him considerable soft power.
The road to Pyongyang is paved with good intentions and failed initiatives
He’s no kingmaker, but he’s certainly a king-legitimator – and this is the reason Pyongyang wants him. Why have a military deterrent when you can have a papal one?
It was the Catholic vote which Trump used as a stick to batter his way to the presidency, and American Protestants like the Pope too.
If His Holiness visits Pyongyang, any subsequent U.S. attempts at threatening North Korea into denuclearization will be politically castrated (if they haven’t been already).
Lacking the widespread support “maximum pressure 1.0” enjoyed among Trump voters, the President will be much less inclined to further belligerence. With one visit Pope Francis could clip the wings of Washington’s hawks.
But what’s in it for him? He likely wants to improve human rights in North Korea, including currently non-existent religious freedom. Supporting Pyongyang’s denuclearization and inter-Korean reconciliation are also priorities.
He’s the first pope to condemn the very possession of nuclear weapons, saying they “create nothing but a false sense of security… they cannot constitute the basis for peaceful co-existence.”
DEALING WITH THE CHAIRMAN
But, though laudable in its attempt to offer any reinforcement to a precarious peace, any papal visit could be perceived as a Faustian move: supporting the current reconciliation means tacitly supporting the regime’s legitimacy.
The Party’s Propaganda writers can take a day off – the headlines will write themselves.
Besides buttressing the unstable detente, Francis may hope to extract from some minor concessions on freedom of religion in DPRK from Kim Jong Un. Though not impossible (after all, softening their image is precisely why Pyongyang invited him), “minor” is the key term.
Kim might throw him a bone, but if Francis pushes he might get Pyongyang’s version of Stalin’s infamous quip: “the Pope? How many divisions has he got?”
ROK President Moon Jae-in clearly wants him to go, though right now he’d support this author’s left foot making an official visit, so desperate is he for pro-engagement allies amid his rift with Washington. Kim Jong Un clearly wants him to go: he understands and supports Seoul throwing everything at nudging Trump over the inter-Korean Rubicon.
Francis may hope to extract from some minor concessions on freedom of religion in DPRK from Kim Jong Un
But even Francis probably really does want to go – this is the maverick Pope who was planning on visiting Iraq in June – the question is will he go?
That’s a tough question, though there’s certainly evidence to suggest he could.
Popes tend to have a binary relationship with authoritarian regimes. Like North Korea experts, they tend to fall either into the “engagement” camp (i.e. changing the regime) or the “overthrowing” camp (i.e. regime-change).
The pioneering “pro-engagement” Pope was John XXII (1958-63). Offering to mediate during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he was praised by both sides and laid the groundwork for his successor, Paul VI (1963-78).
He, in turn, adopted the term “Ostpolitik” (referencing the thaw in tensions between East and West Germany ten years previously) in his efforts to engage with Soviet leaders. The result was a marginal improvement for Christians living behind the Iron Curtain.
Then came John Paul II. He purged the clergy who’d supported Ostpolitik, preached about the moral evils of communism, and held a public Mass in Krakow’s Victory Square.
Three million people turned up. His visit prompted the creation of the “Solidarity” trade union in Poland, significantly weakening Soviet control and, some claim, playing a part in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Defector diplomat Thae Yong-ho claims he was part of a foreign ministry task force formed in 1991 by Kim Il Sung to arrange a visit by Paul II to Pyongyang. Kim hoped it would raise the North out of diplomatic isolation, and Thae says the plan was scrapped amid concerns a repeat papal performance might weaken the revolutionary spirit of ordinary North Koreans.
Kim Jong Il revived the idea in 2000 when he extended the Pope an invitation through ROK President Kim Dae-jung. Having proclaimed to journalists it would be a “miracle” if he could go to Pyongyang, the sudden invitation found him embarrassingly lost for words. He weaseled out of it by claiming his visit was conditional upon Pyongyang accepting Catholic priests.
So that’s the Holy See’s record. But what about Francis’s? Again, there’s reason to hope.
EL PAPA PRAGMATICO
Last month the Vatican concluded a historic agreement with Beijing over the appointment of Chinese bishops. China’s approximately 12 million Catholics are split between the Vatican-loyal underground Church and the state-loyal “Patriotic Catholic Association”. Beijing broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and has since rebuffed all attempts at re-establishing them.
Rapprochement has been harshly criticized by some Chinese Catholics as appeasement, even capitulation. Last month’s compromise bridges the gap between the underground Church and the CPCA. It was Pope Francis who finally forced it through.
Francis is in many ways a revolutionary pope
Last year he visited Myanmar where, to the disappointment of human rights advocates but the relief of Myanmar’s minority Catholics, he did not say “Rohingya.”
His visit came after several weeks of debate about whether he should or shouldn’t mention the persecuted group, with many arguing taking the moral high ground would only aggravate tensions. Again, Realpolitik won out over uncompromising idealism.
Francis is in many ways a revolutionary pope. He has flown in the face of all prior Popes in softening the Church’s stance on divorce, he said nothing when Ireland voted to legalize abortion and, when speaking to a gay man, said: “God made you like this.” A more liberal, pro-engagement pope the world has not seen.
He’s already visited Seoul in 2014, where he invited a North Korean delegation to take part in his Mass there (he’s still waiting on an answer).
He’s visiting Japan next year, and, in light of last month’s agreement, an extra leg to China is already being discussed. A visit to the DPRK seems eminently feasible.
THE MARRIAGE OF CHURCH AND STATE (DEPARTMENT)
But the very factors which suggest Francis could visit Pyongyang are the same reason Pyongyang might worry – he is unpredictable.
He spontaneously got out of the Popemobile in Bethlehem to kiss the West Bank wall, infuriating Israelis. He often gets in trouble for his off-the-cuff remarks to the press. And he may not have said “Rohingya” in Myanmar, but he said it in Bangladesh.
What happens if he stands next to Kim Jong Un and says “Human Rights”?
To most, it’s a negligible concern though. Francis doesn’t speak Korean, he’s not a well-known figure there, and the number of Christians in the DPRK is small.
The real worry is the union of (bitter) Church and (unwilling) State.
Although lauded by laypersons around the world, there is entrenched opposition to Francis within the Church. He has, as a Russian friend of this author’s once put it, “pulled a Gorbachev.”
His arch-nemesis and conservative leader, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, was made apoplectic by the revised papal position on divorce and has intimated, if not threatened, a schism. The right-wing Cardinal hates feminism, communism, and every other “ism” except patriotism.
Washington, meanwhile, understands and dislikes the implications of a papal visit. John Bolton et al. are likely unimpressed at Francis trying to tie their hands.
For though the Pope is a moral megaphone, Washington might try to remove the batteries
And, as the cardinal who invited former-Trump adviser Steve Bannon to address a conference in the Vatican, Burke and Bolton know a lot of the same people.
Washington’s hardliners might pressure Francis through the Church, threatening to throw a spanner into the works. Otherwise they can whisper-whisper to Trump that a Pope-Kim Summit would undermine U.S.-interests and watch the visit’s death by tweet.
For though the Pope is a moral megaphone, Washington might try to remove the batteries. Whether Francis would submit to U.S. pressure after both Koreas have invited him is another matter.
Things are moving quickly in Korea. We have little idea what the political environment will look like in 2019, let alone how Trump, Francis or Kim’s positions will change with it.
Gone are the days where Pyongyang’s diplomacy could be summarized by year, if not decade. The future, as they say, isn’t what it used to be.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1734 words of this article.