By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – South Korea’s intelligence chief has said he is working on a possible visit by Pope Francis to North Korea, a Catholic news agency associated with the Vatican says.
Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state, which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there. There is little information on how many of its citizens are Catholic, or how they practice their faith.
Fides, the official agency of the Pontifical Mission Societies, said that Park Jie-won made the announcement at a Mass in Mokpo, South Korea, on Monday.
Fides said Park told participants at the Mass that he would meet with Archbishop Kim Hee-jung of Gwangju and the Vatican’s ambassador to South Korea, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, to discuss a possible papal visit to Pyongyang.
Park is director of the National Intelligence Service.
On Thursday, a person who answered a call to the church where Park spoke confirmed his attendance but would not confirm any of his comments.
The intelligence agency in Seoul has not publicly confirmed Park’s comments.
In 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in verbally relayed an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the pope. Kim and Moon had met a month earlier.
Vatican officials said afterwards an official written invitation would be considered. It was not clear if any invitation has arrived since then.
They said the pope, who has made many appeals for rapprochement between the two Koreas, would consider such a trip under certain conditions if it could help the cause of peace.
The pope is recovering from intestinal surgery in a Rome hospital. He is scheduled to visit Slovakia and Hungary in September. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said this was the only trip being considered now.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Sangmi Cha in Seoul, editing by Angus MacSwan)