SEOUL — Pope Francis’ closing act in South Korea on Monday was a Mass “for peace and reconciliation.” Though defined as a prayer for all Asia, it was primarily a reference to the division of the pope’s host nation following a 1953 armistice that suspended, but didn’t officially end, the Korean War.
Reminders of the tension are almost ubiquitous here. Seoul treats the possibility of war the way other urban areas do natural disasters, with virtually every subway station and hotel keeping gas masks and survival kits within easy reach in case of a sneak attack from the north.
The climate of fear even colored the pope’s visit. South Korean authorities insisted on assigning a special forces team to shadow Francis, conspicuous by the black sport utility vehicles that stood in stark contrast to the pontiff’s budget Kia version of the Popemobile.
While on the Korean peninsula, Francis repeatedly voiced hopes for overcoming the laceration.
“Are there two Koreas? No, there’s only one, but it’s divided. The family is divided,” the pope said to a young Korean girl who questioned him during a Friday session with Asian Youth.
In remarks to government officials and diplomats that same day, the pope spoke of the need to “give our young people the gift of peace.”
“This appeal has all the more resonance here in Korea,” he said, because it’s “a land which has long suffered because of a lack of peace.”
Catholic leaders say the church in South Korea is committed to the cause.
“It is the mission of the Korean Church to work towards the reconciliation and unification of our country,” said Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul.
“In many ways, the island represents the world’s need of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
In part, Francis likely sees the push for unity in Korea as part of his broad effort to promote peace, one that’s especially compelling because of the dire humanitarian situation just across the border to the north.
In part, too, Francis has a lively concern for new Christian martyrs, and few places provide a better focus for it than North Korea. The regime routinely finishes at the top of global watch lists for violations of religious freedom, with Christians a frequent target.
Fr. Gerard Hammond, an American missionary who’s one of the few Catholics allowed to enter North Korea periodically, says it’s been sixty years since a Catholic priest was based in the country and that no North Korean has been baptized in years.
Since 1998, together with a team of experts of the Eugene Bell Foundation, Hammond been providing treatment for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis patients in North Korea. It’s an unusual situation, since crossing the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas requires explicit permission from both sides.
“It’s been so long since locals have seen a priest that, as long as I don’t try to talk to any of them about God, I can actually wear the Roman collar in Pyongyang [North Korea’s capital city] without getting into trouble,” Hammond said.
Fr. Lee Eun-hyung, who heads a church-sponsored “Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean people,” estimates that in North Korea today “there are about 10,000 people who remember their Catholic faith in their hearts.”
Before the war, Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” for its thriving Christian population, a heritage that’s almost completely erased. The lone Catholic church still standing, the Changchung Cathedral, is controlled by a state-sponsored Catholic body not recognized by the Vatican.
One North Korean defector who attended Monday’s Mass, identified only as Oh, said he wants the pope “to always remember the violated human rights of North Korea.”
Although Francis used a speech to Asian bishops on Sunday to invite North Korea and other Asian nations without diplomatic relations with the Vatican to enter into dialogue, that prospect is often complicated by politics.
When the decision to include a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the pope’s schedule was confirmed, for instance, invitations were sent to North Korea’s state-run Korean Catholic Association to send a delegation.
Citing a “difficult local situation,” officials declined. Observers believe it was a response to South Korea’s refusal to halt construction of a US military base on its southern Jeju Island.
“We feel deeply sorry about the outcome, but we will continue to pray for another chance to celebrate Mass with the North Korean faithful,” said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi.
Whether Francis’ overtures on this trip will bear fruit is anyone’s guess, but there seems little doubt the pontiff will keep trying.