North Korea to Pope Francis: Come on down

Either Kim Jong-un wants to truly build a legacy as an engager, or he just knows which buttons to press on the world stage. In the latest public-relations effort to raise the stature of North Korea, the Kim regime will extend an invitation to Pope Francis for a visit to Pyongyang. South Korean president Moon Jae-in — who is working overtime as Kim’s interlocutor these days — will relay the message to the Vatican in his visit next week:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang in a gesture designed to highlight peace efforts on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will deliver Kim’s invitation when he meets Francis next week during a trip to Europe, Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said.

“President Moon will visit the Vatican on Oct. 17 and 18 to reaffirm its blessing and support for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula,” the spokesman told a news briefing.

“Especially when he meets with Pope Francis, he will convey Chairman Kim’s message that he will ardently welcome him if he visits Pyongyang.”

Sounds like a great opportunity for Francis to visit the North Korean Catholic Church. That’s meant literally, as in there is one Catholic church in the whole country. The latest report on North Korea from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom offers a glimpse of the limited options for Christian worship above the 38th Parallel on the peninsula:

All religious groups are prohibited from conducting religious activities except through the handful of state-controlled houses of worship, and even these activities are tightly controlled and largely manufactured for the benefit of foreign audiences. (There are three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church.) Underground churches do exist in North Korea, but information about their location and number of parishioners is nearly impossible to confirm. According to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, individuals face persecution for propagating religion, possessing religious items, carrying out religious activities (including praying and singing hymns), and having contact with religious persons. …

The North Korean regime reviles Christianity and considers it the biggest threat among religions; the regime associates Christianity with the West, particularly the United States. Through robust surveillance, the regime actively tries to identify and seek out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members even if they are not similarly religious. In May 2017, some Christian defectors informed USCIRF about their life in North Korea. One defector explained that there is only one religion in North Korea: the worship of leader Kim Jong-un. Still, the defector depicted the Gospel as a lifeline for many North Korean Christians, especially in an environment in which they, in his words, “do not have a right to think” and are “forced to live in a certain way.”

In other words, it’s China on steroids when it comes to religious oppression. One has to wonder how the pontiff would spend his time in Pyongyang if he can’t pray, sing hymns, or congregate with other Christians. Even more, why would any Christians risk identifying themselves by meeting with him?

There doesn’t seem to be much to entice Pope Francis to drop by, but an even better question is why Kim wants him to do so at all. Kim shows no signs of wishing to dispense with his cult of personality, in which the savior of souls is Kim rather than Christ. Indeed, one has to wonder just how long Kim would remain above room temperature without that cult of personality providing the formation for his security forces. Sure, it would make a good photo op in international circles and enhance his image as a potential reformer, but a papal visit might actually encourage some North Koreans to — gasp — begin worshiping Christ rather than the State. Ask the Soviet Poliburo how well it worked out for them when they allowed Pope John Paul II to visit his native Poland behind the Iron Curtain.

Oh, wait, he can’t ask them, can he? I wonder why.

The formal invite won’t come until next week, so the Vatican will likely play coy until it arrives. They’ve refrained from responding today, and they’ll have to think long and hard about whether a visit will benefit covert Christians or boost their oppressors more.

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