Seoul says Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit N. Korea

In this Sept. 26, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. South Korea says North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit North Korea. (AP)
Updated 09 October 2018
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Seoul says Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit N. Korea

  • The Vatican insisted at the time that a papal visit would only be possible if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea
  • The Vatican did not comment on the possibility of a papal visit

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit the officially atheist country, South Korea said Tuesday.
South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that Kim told President Moon Jae-in during their summit last month that the pope would be “enthusiastically” welcomed in North Korea.
Kim has been intensely engaged in diplomacy in recent months in what’s seen as an effort to leverage his nuclear weapons program for an easing of economic sanctions and military pressure.
North Korea strictly controls the religious activities of its people, and a similar invitation for then-Pope John Paul II to visit after a 2000 inter-Korean summit never resulted in a meeting. The Vatican insisted at the time that a papal visit would only be possible if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.
Moon plans to convey Kim’s desire for a papal visit when he travels to the Vatican next week. Moon said on Monday that he expects Kim to visit Russia soon and possibly hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The Vatican did not comment on the possibility of a papal visit. But immediately after the news, the Vatican press office released a statement confirming that the pope would receive South Korea’s president in an audience at the Vatican on Oct. 18. 
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the audience will come a day after the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, celebrates a Mass for peace on the Korean Peninsula in St. Peter’s Basilica, where Moon will participate.  
Francis visited South Korea in August 2014. On the plane ride back to Rome, he expressed hope that the divisions would be overcome, saying “the two Koreas are brothers, they speak the same language.”  
“When you speak the same language it is because you have the same mother, and this gives us hope,” the pope said. “The suffering of the division is great, and I understand this and pray that it ends.”
North Korea’s reported overture comes a few weeks after the Vatican signed a landmark deal with Communist China, North Korea’s closest ally, over bishop nominations, aimed at ending decades of tensions that contributed to dividing the Chinese church and hampered efforts at improving relations between China and the Vatican. 
Paolo Affatato, the Asia editor for Fides Catholic news agency, said a visit by the pope to North Korea would “provide concrete support for the peace process” on the Korean Peninsula.
“North Korea can be seen in the framework of great attention that the pope and Holy See are paying to East Asia” with a clear awareness of the “political and diplomatic dividends that peace would bring on a global level,” he said.
Following an unusually provocative run of weapons tests last year, Kim has been on a diplomatic offensive since the start of this year.
He initiated offers for summits with Seoul and Washington, which led to three meetings with Moon and a highly choreographed June summit with US President Donald Trump at which they issued an aspirational goal of a nuclear-free peninsula, without describing how or when it would occur.
Kim has presented himself as an international statesman, sharing food, wine and laughs with South Korean officials and appearing thoroughly at ease during his meeting with Trump in Singapore.
But post-summit nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States got off to a rocky start, with the North accusing Washington of making “gangster-like” unilateral demands for denuclearization, and calling for sanctions to be lifted before any further progress in nuclear talks.
There are doubts whether Kim is willing to fully relinquish his country’s nuclear weapons, which he may see as a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurances the United States could provide.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kim in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on Sunday for talks on setting up a second summit with Trump.
The Vatican’s priests were expelled by North Korea long ago and state-appointed laymen officiate services.
Estimates of the number of North Korean Catholics range from 800 to about 3,000, compared to more than 5 million in South Korea.
Affatato said Catholics meet in a church in Pyongyang, one of three churches that exist in North Korea.
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Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.


US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

Updated 20 January 2019
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US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

  • US and Pakistan should have “strategic engagement”, not transactional relationship
  • The American senator sees a “unique opportunity” to change diplomatic direction of US-Pakistan ties

ISLAMABAD:  US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday President Donald Trump should meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as soon as possible to reset long-difficult US relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

The comments, which add to growing signs of improved relations between Islamabad and Washington, come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.

"I've seen things change here and all in a positive direction," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, told a news conference in Islamabad.

He said a meeting with Khan, who has declared strong support for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, would leave Trump "far more enthusiastic about the region than he is today".

"With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship," he said. A previously transactional relationship, based on rewards for services rendered, should be replaced by "strategic engagement", including a free trade agreement, he said.

US relations with Pakistan have long been dogged by suspicions that elements in the Pakistani establishment were aiding the Taliban, a charge Islamabad strongly denies. However, relations have appeared to improve in recent months amid efforts to push the Taliban towards a peace deal.

Trump, who has in the past argued for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, has made it clear he wants to see a peace accord reached rapidly although the Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with the Afghan government.

Graham's trip to Pakistan coincided with a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and top military commanders including General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command.

Khalilzad left Islamabad without announcing a new date for talks with Taliban representatives, who have refused further meetings until the US side agrees to discuss a timetable for withdrawing its forces.

The uncertainty has been increased by reports that Trump is prepared to order more than 5,000 US troops out of Afghanistan, a move that would represent a sharp change in course from Washington's previous policy of stepping up military action against the Taliban.

With Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a year and struggling to hold back the Taliban insurgency, the reports have caused alarm in Kabul, prompting many close to the government to question the US commitment to Afghanistan.

Asked whether there had been confusion over the US message, Graham, who has called for a Senate hearing on Trump's plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, said "without a doubt" but added that he did not believe Washington would stand by and allow a Taliban victory.

"The world's not going to let the Taliban take Afghanistan over by force of arms. That would be unconscionable," he told Reuters. "Any president who let that happen would go down in history very poorly."