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South Korea prepared to call on Pope Francis to visit North, defector says

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South Korea prepared to call on Pope Francis to visit North, defector says
South Korea stands ready to continue engagement with North Korea by asking prominent figures like Pope Francis to mediate inter-Korean dialogue, a North Korean defector said Thursday. File Photo by Stefano Spaziani/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- South Korea could try to persuade Pope Francis to visit North Korea when President Moon Jae-in travels to Rome in October for the G20 summit, according to a former North Korean diplomat.

Defector Thae Yong-ho, an opposition party lawmaker in the South, said Thursday at the International Forum on One Korea plenary session, "Korean Dream Framework," that Seoul could ask the pontiff to play a mediating role between the two Koreas. The pope in 2014 took on a public role to help restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

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Thae, a critic of the administration in Seoul, said the pope's visit is an "extremely sensitive issue."

Conservatives in the South have said past meetings with North Korea's Kim Jong Un were purely cosmetic and summits did not produce desired results, including denuclearization.

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The defector also said his political rivals in the ruling Democratic Party could "exploit" the pope's potential trip to North Korea ahead of a presidential election in 2022.

But Thae, who fled Pyongyang's Embassy in London in 2016, did not rule out other developments.

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Pope Francis' visit could be an opportunity to advance religious freedom and human rights in North Korea. The North Korean people may not initially know anything about Francis, but his visit could allow "stories to quietly circulate throughout North Korea" about the pontiff, if he appears in Pyongyang and holds a mass at venues like Changchung Cathedral.

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Thae also said past North Korean leaders have wavered on a pope visit. Kim Il Sung tried to invite Pope John Paul II, but son Kim Jong Il opposed the idea.

Kim Jong Un may have entertained the idea of hosting Francis.

Pyongyang 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, then-chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

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There is no guarantee North Korea will invite the pope to Pyongyang, however, given the current atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula.

Hyun Jin Preston Moon, founder and chairman of the Global Peace Foundation, said Thursday at the virtual forum that the North was taking a more "belligerent approach."

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The situation in North Korea is "increasingly unstable" as corruption grows in the country in connection to a growing black market. North Korean decision makers could also be divided, between those seeking the aggressive security policy on display, and those who would like to see "greater economic reforms," said Moon, who is also chairman of the company that owns UPI.

North Korea's isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has been defined by fewer weapons provocations, but lower levels of activity cannot guarantee that the regime is not growing its destructive capabilities, other speakers said.

William Parker, former president of East West Institute, said that past failed negotiations could have made the country more dangerous. Amid a pandemic-induced isolation, North Korea could have advanced nuclear plans.

"The world finds itself at an important crossroads," Parker said.

The analyst also said that U.N. sanctions are not impacting the regime fast enough because countries such as China are not fully implementing the resolutions of the Security Council.

Huiyao Wang, founder and president of Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing, did not address allegations of reluctant sanctions enforcement on Thursday.

Wang said China supports peace talks for Korean unification, and that Beijing helped build "good relations" in the past between the two Koreas. China played a role in setting up the first summit between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il in 2000, Wang said.

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The Chinese analyst also said Korean Peninsula affairs could bring the United States and China to work together.

"Why not have a four-party talks," Wang said, referring to the United States, China and the two Koreas.

"I think China and the United States could work together, even though the relationship is tough from time to time."

International Forum on One Korea and the Global Peace Foundation are affiliated with UCI, the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International. Hyun Jin "Preston" Moon serves as chairman of UCI.

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