North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un reportedly invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, South Korea’s presidential office revealed on Tuesday.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said that, during his upcoming visit to the Vatican, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will send an invitation on behalf of Kim Jong-un.
“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,” he said. “Especially when he meets with Pope Francis, he will convey Chairman Kim’s message that he will ardently welcome him if he visits Pyongyang.”
Despite having a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion so long as it does not undermine the atheist regime, Christians in North Korea have long been the subject of brutal persecution. The country’s Catholic population is estimated at around 800 to 3,000 people, compared to over five million in South Korea, while the country at large is believed to be home to 400,000 Christians in total, although there is no official data to prove such statistics.
A 2017 report on global religious persecution found that, in North Korea, Christians have undergone “unspeakable atrocities, including extra-judicial killings, forced labor, torture, persecution, starvation, rape, forced abortion, and sexual violence.” Many Christian families live in fear that their children, all of whom are indoctrinated within the communist system, will expose them to the authorities.
Documented crimes against Christians include “being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, and trampled underfoot.” Most are sent to labor camps for communist re-education, while estimates indicate that three-quarters of people in such camps do not survive.
In its annual International Religious Freedom Report published in May, the State Department concluded that Christianity is “considered … a serious threat, as it challenged the official cult of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government.”
Prior to the installation of a communist regime in North Korea, Pyongyang was one of the most Christian cities in the world, commonly referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East.” The Kim family, up to the parents of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, were among the majority Christians in the country.
During a visit to Seoul in August 2014, Pope Francis expressed hope that the two countries would eventually reconcile, “the two Koreas are brothers, they speak the same language.”
“The two Koreas are brothers, they speak the same language,” he said. “When you speak the same language it is because you have the same mother, and this gives us hope. The suffering of the division is great, and I understand this and pray that it ends.”
Such an invitation is the latest example of Kim Jong-un’s efforts to promote international diplomacy as his country continues peace negotiations with the United States and South Korea. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang after which he claimed both sides had made progress on a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and begin a new era of peace.