Feb. 15 (UPI) -- North Korean diplomats met with the former South Korean ambassador to the Holy See in Rome in 2019, at a time when Pope Francis had indicated interest in visiting North Korea, according to reports.
Former Ambassador Lee Baek-man said in an article published in Firenze's Table, a South Korean publication, he met with the North Korean ambassador to Italy at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on Feb. 10, 2019, ahead of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam.
Lee is revealing details of the meeting for the first time, after leaving his post. The encounter also came after South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Francis in 2018. The pope had reportedly indicated interest in visiting North Korea.
The pontiff never visited North Korea before the coronavirus pandemic, and North Korea never extended an invitation. But in December 2018, Marco Impagliazzo, the president of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic association in Rome, visited North Korea for humanitarian cooperation and met with Kim Yong Nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly. According to Lee, the meeting was "very unusual" and a sign of North Korean interest in the Vatican, EDaily reported Monday.
The former South Korean ambassador also said in his article Moon and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed their shared identity as Roman Catholics, during their first phone call. The discussion also addressed the pope, Lee said.
"With the G20 summit to be held in Rome in October of this year, there could be an important discussion about the 'peace process on the Korean Peninsula'," Lee said.
Lee also said the U.S. decision to enforce North Korea sanctions after the collapsed summit in Vietnam in February 2019 led to new restrictions. The former Trump administration restricted humanitarian aid to the North, Lee said, according to News 1.
Lee said last year in November the pope has continued to show interest in visiting North Korea.
North Korea has consistently ranked as one of the world's most religiously repressive societies. U.S. nonprofit Open Doors has said the regime ranks No. 1 in the world for religious persecution, a statement Pyongyang has denied.