South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday made a fresh attempt to have Pope Francis visit North Korea, at a meeting at the Vatican where the two leaders discussed peace efforts, Yonhap said.
Moon gave Francis one of 136 crosses created with barbed wire from a fence in the demilitarised zone (DMZ), the division across the peninsula for the past 68 years.
He said that if the pope were to visit North Korea “when an opportunity arises,” such a trip would provide “momentum for peace,” presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee told the South Korean news agency.
Francis replied he was willing to go if he received a letter of invitation from Pyongyang, it added.
The Vatican said the pontiff discussed the “promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans” with Moon, who is in Italy for the G20 summit.
Francis travelled to South Korea in 2014, and held a mass in Seoul dedicated to reunification.
During Moon’s first meeting with the pope in 2018, he delivered a verbal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for Francis to visit the North — something which no pope has done before.
There are 5.9 million Catholics in South Korea, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, accounting for one in nine of the population.
In the North, religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution but all religious activity is completely banned outside of state-sanctioned institutions.
In the early 20th century, Pyongyang was a regional missionary hub with scores of churches and a thriving Christian community earning it the title of “Jerusalem of the East”.
But Kim Il Sung, the North’s late founding leader and the current ruler’s grandfather, viewed Christianity as a threat and eradicated it through executions and labour camps.
The North’s regime since then has allowed Catholic organisations to run aid projects in the impoverished country, but direct relations with the Vatican are non-existent.