Pope Francis celebrating the Holy Mass for Peace and Reconciliation at Myeongdong Cathedral during his pastoral visit to South Korea for the 6th Asian Youth Day, August 18, 2014. Photo: AFP / Grezgorz Galazka / Leemage

Try this on for curious juxtaposition: South Korea’s top spook is “working for a possible visit by Pope Francis to North Korea.”

An account by a Seoul-based Roman Catholic publication reports that, on Tuesday, “at a Catholic Eucharist in Mokpo, in the southern province of Jeolla, Park Jie-won, director of the National Intelligence Service, reported that he would meet with Archbishop Kim Hee-jung and the apostolic nuncio in South Korea, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, to discuss Pope Francis’s visit to Pyongyang.”

What’s that all about?

As for Park, he’s a politician who lost an election and was named spy chief in 2020 by President Moon Jae-in. Like Moon, Park’s a devout Catholic – and a devout partisan for what they and their fellow left-nationalist pols on the South’s current ruling-party side call “engagement” with the North.

Rather than engagement, critics prefer the term appeasement. It was Park himself, as top aide to then-President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, who secretly arranged the wherewithal to persuade North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to agree to a summit with his Southern counterpart: a bribe of half a billion dollars. For that, Park went to prison, briefly.

But why would Park now be trying to arrange for the Pope to visit Pyongyang?

Park Jie-won. Photo: AFP / Kim Je-whan

The idea “was also bandied about in the 1980s after North Korea built their ‘church’ building in Pyongyang,” recalls one longtime Western (and Catholic) North Korea watcher.

Cardinal Kim Soo-hwan and the Catholic Church in South Korea “wanted to see if there was something real – pastorally – in the Christian ‘congregation’ in North Korea that went to services at the church, so the idea of a John Paul ll visit was raised,” he says.

Yes, North Korea has churches – one Catholic (not Roman; it’s decidedly not part of the Vatican’s hierarchy), one Russian Orthodox and three Protestant. They were set up to give foreigners the impression the regime grants religious freedom.

Testing that initiative, the North Korea watcher recalls, “the Billy Graham organization also got involved.” 

In 1992 and 1994 American televangelist Graham went to Pyongyang and met Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. That gave the elder Kim considerable face – and in return he permitted Graham to preach to crowds of North Koreans at Kim Il Sung University.

Need it be noted that you could not matriculate to study at the country’s premier educational institution without being a total adherent to the regime and its program?

Graham’s business was saving souls: persuading sinners in the congregation to walk down the aisle and confess their newfound faith in Jesus. Some 3.2 million responded, worldwide, during his decades-long preaching career.

Ahn Hyuk was a teenaged table tennis champion who secretly visited China and then made the mistake of confessing to State Security. He became a political prisoner for more than two years. Discovering after release that there was no future for him, he defected to the South, where I eventually interviewed him at length about his prison experience. In the course of the interview he volunteered these remarks:

When Billy Graham visited North Korea he returned and said, “Christianity is reviving.” I’ll tell you the real story of religious life in North Korea. There’s absolutely no religion in North Korea. I saw so many people in camp who came in because of religious belief. Even secretly praying is enough to get you sent to a camp. Probably everyone in North Korea who is a religious believer is sent to a camp.

I want to write a letter to Billy Graham: “If you really want to know religion in North Korea, go to a prison camp.” When Billy Graham went to a church service, he should have asked people in the congregation to recite Bible verses.

Indeed, a striking fact to a renegade Southern Baptist about the services Graham presided over in North Korea is that they did not include an altar call. Nobody came down front; nobody had been invited.

Coining an evangelical counterpart to the military term “body count,” therefore, we have to say there was no soul count to point to as evidence Satan was in retreat in Pyongyang.

American evangelist Billy Graham presents his book ‘Peace with God’ to North Korean President Kim il-Sung on April 2, 1992, in Pyongyang. On the left is interpreter Steve Linton, a Graham relative, whose Eugene Bell Foundation went on to offer humanitarian aid to North Korea. Photo: AFP

But, practically speaking, attracting converts is not the only reason a religious leader would want to go to Pyongyang. Non-governmental humanitarian foundations associated with Graham have maintained access to the country while others have been banned.

That sort of reasoning resonates with the Catholics. “The idea of Pope Francis to North Korea is not new,” says the North Korea watcher quoted above, “and it’s the kind of stuff Popes do – both for show and for real.”

If North Korea should agree, he asks rhetorically, “would the explanations on North Korean media to the North Korean people of who the Pope is be a good thing or a bad thing?”

As for the role of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the church publication offers an explanation by Monsignor Lazzaro You Heung-sik, a bishop newly named to the post of prefect of South Korea’s Congregation for the Clergy:

In October 2018, when the President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, was received in audience by Pope Francis, he delivered the Pope an invitation from Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for a possible apostolic journey to that nation. The Pope then replied that he was available to visit North Korea, the moment he received a formal invitation from the authorities of Pyongyang.

When I heard the news of the Holy Father’s availability, I was really moved. Since then I have constantly prayed for the Pope’s visit to North Korea to take place. Nearly ten million Koreans live in forced separation due to the division between the South and the North.

The confrontation that exists on the Korean Peninsula is one of the greatest sufferings of humanity today. It is noteworthy that the … “Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ) between the South and the North is ironically the most militarized zone in the world.

I am convinced that a possible visit to Pyongyang could represent a turning point, which would allow us Koreans to dialogue and understand each other better, starting with small things and ending with big ones, and perhaps even reaching the reunification of the South and the North.

In concrete terms, the Holy Father’s mediation could be a propitious opportunity to put an end to the conflict, the result of mutual distrust between the two parts of the Peninsula which has lasted for too many decades.

I pray and try to do what I can, in the hope that at least a small ray of hope will open up for mutual understanding, overcoming the current situation of tension and opposition. 
Humanly, there seems to be little hope, but since God is omnipotent, I try, by praying to Him, to welcome all that can be useful to promote peace.

Barring an intervening regime change, which the monsignor certainly doesn’t mention, it takes a lot of faith to see a ray of hope – even a small one – that a papal visit could lead to a mutually satisfactory Korean unification.

And the “forced separation” argument no longer carries much weight with some who have analyzed the situation carefully.

President Donald J Trump and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in bid farewell to Chairman of the Workers Party Kim Jong Un on June 30, 2019, at the demarcation line separating North and South Korea at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

“We’re to infer that a key driver of Moon’s interest in inter-Korean relations is his desire to bring together separated families,” another North Korea watcher, BR Myers, wrote recently in another context.

“It isn’t,” he said. Seventy-six years after the division of the peninsula, family reunions offer little appeal. The number of people still alive who await a turn to participate “is shrinking fast.”

Putting aside the left-nationalist pie in the sky, you have on the one hand a North Korean regime that has been steadfastly communist for more than three-quarters of a century while requiring total obedience to the absolute ruler.

Down south, on the other hand, you have a different Korean society that has been capitalist for all that time – and, since 1987, has enjoyed free democratic elections of its leaders.

Perhaps Kim Jong Un – once he ends his current, apparently Covid-avoidance-motivated total shutdown of the borders – would welcome a visit by Francis, just as he welcomed having Donald Trump show up for summits. That sort of thing can be good for his prestige.

As for Francis, he’s been recovering from surgery but, last we heard, he was up for a Pyongyang journey.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.