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Top Korean bishop answers criticism of pope’s trip

Banner welcoming Pope Francis hung on a street in Seoul, South Korea.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

Banner welcoming Pope Francis hung on a street in Seoul, South Korea.

SEOUL — No papal trip is without controversy, and the Vatican’s default setting usually is to pass the buck to local organizers. As a result, the pope’s hosts end up fielding most complaints, and right now that puts Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Korean bishops’ conference, in the eye of a storm.

During the 96 hours the pontiff will spend on the peninsula, he’s scheduled to celebrate three large masses, to meet Asian Catholic youth at a stadium built for the FIFA 2002 World Cup, to deliver ten public speeches, and to visit Kkottongae, a center for the disabled and poor that treats over 5,000 people.

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Inevitably, however, some believe Francis should be doing more.

Some locals, for instance, have insisted that he add a visit to Jeju Island, where the Korean government is building a highly controversial naval base for US forces. Others have called for the pope to defy government-imposed security measures restricting use of the open-air Pope-mobile, in order to greet as many people as possible.

Some religious orders and other critics also have objected to his stop at Kkottongae, charging that it represents an impersonal and commercial approach to serving disabled people, and also raising charges of corruption and profiteering against its founder, a well-known Korean priest named Fr. John Oh.

Another vocal group in the run-up to the pope’s arrival tomorrow is composed of family members of the roughly 300 students who lost their lives in the Sewol shipwreck six months ago. Though they aren’t protesting the visit, they’re demanding that Francis use his political influence to pressure the government to open an independent investigation.

Family members will have the opportunity to greet Pope Francis on four occasions during his time in the country.

Kang, 68, sat down to discuss some of the headaches surrounding the pope’s trip with the Globe on Wednesday, at the headquarters of the South Korean Bishops Conference where the country’s prelates will welcome Francis on Thursday.

Globe: What does this visit mean for the South Korean church?

Kang U-il: It’s a great honor for Koreans to welcome the pope for the third time in the country’s history. We sent the invitation believing he wouldn’t be able to come. His decision to accept our request shows his concern over the present political and international situation in East Asia. Tensions among China and Japan, and South and North Korea, are being accelerated by each’s country’s interests. He probably realized that South Korea is relevant to guaranteeing peace in Asia.

Pope Francis has been known for taking detours and improvising during his trips, sometimes disregarding orders from his security team. Are you afraid he might do so while in Korea?

I think it won’t be easy for him to improvise, this isn’t Europe or Brazil…but I welcome him to try!

Is there something you wanted to have on the pope’s schedule but couldn’t find a way to fit?

There were many things we wanted to include in the program, but there’s a very limited time. We talked with the Vatican’s team that supervised the visit, hoping some other activities could be added, but they asked us to be mindful of the pope’s age [Note: Francis is 77.]

For example, I’m the bishop of the dioceses of Jeju, an island located 100 km from the southern part of the Korean peninsula. We have a very politically delicate issue. In the southern part of the Jeju Island, the government is building a military base to accommodate some of the US warships. [Note: The decision is seen as a direct provocation by North Korea]. I didn’t want him to go to the base, but a trip to the island would have been highly appreciated to placate the social uprising this base has inspired.

We have a very sad history. In 1948, over 30,000 civilians were murdered by the military, following government orders, and only after the year 2000 was the massacre investigated. Not much has been said about it, as if the country didn’t think much of Jeju at all. A visit from Pope Francis would have helped the islanders to heal a wound that still bleeds.

I understand why he couldn’t come, but as many Koreans, I still wish he would have.

Any hope for an improvised gesture towards reconciliation between South and North Korea?

We hope that the visit of Pope Francis will inspire some move towards the reconciliation of the two Koreas. The president from the South is currently trying to shorten the distance, by offering some economic aid to our brothers in the north. It’s critical for both countries. Still in the DMZ area [Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no man’s land of sorts that divides the peninsula], both accumulate enormous amounts of armaments. Any conflict would escalate into a war of proportions so big that it would simply devastate, if not fully destroy, the island.

There have been complaints regarding Francis visiting the Kkottongae facility. What’s your view?

Plainly speaking, this “Flower Village” has become too big, and even the government doesn’t recommend such big facilities for the disabled and poor people. When over 5,000 people are treated in one place, it’s impossible to guarantee that the human rights of each individual are properly respected. Many professionals who are engaged in the social welfare area criticize this facility.

They say that Fr. [John] Oh, the founder and leader of Kkttongae, has become a welfare super-power. That’s why they think it’s not appropriate for the pope to visit.

Even though I agree with the criticism, since I personally doubt that the honorable motives that inspired the project are still its leading forces, I also recognize that it’s the most symbolic place of the Korean church working with the poor and the ill.

Seeing Pope Francis’s schedule, it’s hard to miss the fact that he won’t be using the popemobile much. Why?

When Pope Francis decided to come, he didn’t only accept the invitation from the Korean church, he said yes to the South Korean government. From the beginning, they have been in charge of the security of the visit. They strongly insisted on creating a “safe bubble” around the pope.

In Daejeon, in the Flower Village, and during the Mass that he’ll celebrate in Seoul, he’ll have opportunities to use the popemobile. It will be inside very strongly secured perimeters, but he’ll be able to be amongst faithful Koreans, shake some hands, and kiss some babies’ heads.

Inés San Martín is the Globe’s Rome correspondent. She may be reached at ines.sanmartin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @inesanma.
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