On Tuesday, a presidential spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that North Korea had expressed interest in having Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic church, visit Pyongyang. Kim Eui-keum, Moon’s spokesperson, said that the invitation would be conveyed by the South Korean president during his visit to the Vatican later this month.
The move to invite the Pope to Pyongyang, while surprising, comports with Kim’s broader pursuit of a diplomatic charm offensive this year. After six years of sealing himself off from the outside world, Kim has met multiple world leaders this year.
He has had three summit encounters with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was the first world leader Kim is known to have met after taking control of North Korea in 2011, after his father Kim Jong Il’s death. Kim has additionally met Moon three times and U.S. President Donald J. Trump once. He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin soon. Earlier this year, Kim met the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach in Pyongyang as well.
The invitation from North Korea to the Pope would not be the first. In 2000, following the first-ever inter-Korean summit between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, South Korea conveyed a North Korean invitation to Pope John Paul II.
Pope Francis has taken an interest in developments on the Korean Peninsula as well. This summer, he met with representatives from both South and North Korea during a trip to Geneva, shortly after Kim and Moon, at their first summit, had agreed to “the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea may have additionally observed the role the Vatican was able to play as a broker between the United States and Cuba under the Obama administration. Pope Francis helped lead the two countries, which had a difficult relationship built on decades of mistrust, toward considerable rapprochement.
At the summit in June between Kim and Trump, the United States and North Korea agreed to “establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” Since the summit, North Korea has emphasized its long-standing interest in pursuing diplomatic normalization.
According to Kim Eui-keum, the South Korean presidential spokesperson, Moon, during his trip to the Vatican, will “seek to reconfirm blessings and support from the Vatican for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The South Korean president identifies as a practicing Roman Catholic.