VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis indicated a willingness to visit North Korea during a private audience Thursday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to Vatican and South Korean officials.
Moon "conveyed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's desire for a papal visit to North Korea," the South Korean presidential office said in a statement. A formal invitation directly from North Korea was expected to follow.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said of the likelihood of Francis accepting such an invite: "I would say the availability to go is there." A trip that would be the first by a pope to officially atheist North Korea would need "serious preparation and consideration," Parolin said.
Moon's office revealed last week that Kim had indicated his desire for the pope to visit during a Korean summit last month. The South Korean president's private audience with the pope Thursday lasted 35 minutes and included an exchange of gifts.
Moon, who is Catholic, presented the pope with a relief of the face of Jesus Christ created by a Korean artist. The president pointed to the wreath of thorns on Jesus' head and told the pontiff: "This represents the suffering of the Korean people."
The pope's gifts included a medal engraved with an olive branch. Francis said it represented "his desire for peace" on the Korean peninsula.
During their time together, Moon told the pope, "You are not only the head of the Catholic Church, but a teacher for humanity." Francis urged Moon to "work for peace."1 comment on this story
Moon on Wednesday met with Italian leaders and attended an evening Mass for peace in St. Peter's Basilica with Parolin, the Vatican's top diplomat.
North Korea strictly controls the religious activities of its people. An invitation for then-Pope John Paul II to visit the country 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 North Korea.
Francis, however, has taken a more open approach in the Holy See's diplomacy.