Nick Benson

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Kim Jong Un ‘wants the pope to visit North Korea’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit his country, South Korean officials have said.

Mr Kim told South Korean president Moon Jae-in during their summit last month that the pope would be “enthusiastically” welcomed in North Korea, South Korea’s presidential office said.

The North Korean leader has been engaged in intensive diplomacy in recent months in what is seen as an effort to leverage his nuclear weapons programme for an easing of economic sanctions and military pressure.

North Korea is officially atheist and strictly controls religious activities.

A similar invitation for then-Pope John Paul II to visit after a 2000 inter-Korean summit never resulted in a meeting.

The Vatican insisted at the time that a papal visit would only be possible if Catholic priests were accepted in the country.

Mr Moon plans to convey Mr Kim’s desire for a papal visit when he travels to the Vatican next week.

The South Korean leader said he expects Mr Kim to visit Russia soon and possibly hold a summit with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

He did not comment on the likelihood of a papal visit.

Following an unusually provocative run of weapons tests last year, Mr Kim has been on a diplomatic offensive since the start of this year.

He initiated offers for summits with Seoul and Washington, which led to three meetings with Mr Moon and a highly choreographed June summit with US President Donald Trump at which they issued an aspirational goal of a nuclear-free peninsula, without describing how or when it would occur.

Mr Kim has presented himself as an international statesman, sharing food, wine and laughs with South Korean officials and appearing thoroughly at ease during his meeting with Mr Trump in Singapore.

But post-summit nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the US got off to a rocky start, with the North accusing Washington of making “gangster-like” unilateral demands for denuclearisation, and calling for sanctions to be lifted before any further progress in nuclear talks.

There are doubts whether Mr Kim is willing to fully relinquish his country’s nuclear weapons, which he may see as a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurances the US could provide.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited him in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on Sunday for talks on setting up a second summit with Mr Trump.

The Vatican’s priests were expelled by North Korea long ago and state-appointed laymen officiate services.

Estimates of the number of North Korean Catholics range from 800 to about 3,000, compared with more than five million in South Korea.

Picture: In this 19th September 2018 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea. South Korea says North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit North Korea. South Korea’s presidential office in a statement, said Kim told President Moon Jae-in during their summit last month that the pope would be ‘enthusiastically’ welcomed in Pyongyang. (Pyongyang Press Corps Pool via AP, File).

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