SEOUL, South Korea – Pope Francis called Thursday for peace and unity on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid “fruitless” criticisms and shows of force, offering a message of reconciliation at the start of a five-day visit to South Korea that received a stark response from the North.
North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast about an hour before Francis landed in Seoul, and two others a short while later. North Korea has conducted several such tests this year, and it also has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South.
Neither Francis nor South Korean President Park Geun-hye referred to the firings in their speeches at Seoul’s presidential palace, and the Vatican spokesman sought to downplay the incident altogether, saying he wasn’t even sure the pope had been told.
In the first speech of his first trip to Asia, Francis told Park, government officials and regional diplomats that peace required justice – and that justice in turn requires forgiveness, cooperation and mutual respect. He said diplomacy must be encouraged so that listening and dialogue replace “mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
“We cannot become discouraged in our pursuit of these goals which are for the good not only of the Korean people but of the entire region and the whole world,” he said, in the first English-language speech of his pontificate. Usually Francis speaks in Italian or his native Spanish, but the Vatican said he would deliver at least four speeches in English on the trip to accommodate his Asian audiences.
North Korea’s apparent test firing was conducted from Wonsan on its east coast, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules. It wasn’t immediately clear what the projectiles were.
North Korea has expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it says are invasion preparations. A new round of drills, which Seoul and Washington call routine and defensive, is expected to start in coming days.
As he arrived at an airport just south of Seoul on the first papal visit in a quarter century, the pope shook hands with four relatives of victims of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith. Francis on Saturday will beatify 124 Korean martyrs who founded the church on the peninsula in the 18th century, hoping to give South Korea’s vibrant and growing church new models for holiness and evangelization.
Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope on the tarmac. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers, and he bowed in return. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made Kia car that turned heads in the status-conscious capital, where many would consider it too humble for someone of the pope’s stature.
Francis, however, prefers simpler cars like the Ford Focus he uses to zip around the Vatican.
The main reason for Francis’ trip is to participate in an Asian Catholic youth festival. He is to travel to Daejeon on Friday for his first encounter with the thousands of Catholics who have flocked to South Korea for the Asian version of the World Youth Day. Organizers, however, said many Chinese Catholics were prevented from coming.
A spokesman for the organizing committee, the Rev. Heo Young-yeop, declined to give a figure but said “many students wanted to come but were unable to come to Korea because of the complicated situation,” a reference to the tense relations between Beijing and the Holy See, which haven’t had diplomatic ties since 1951. “From the church’s position we are very sorry that this has happened.”
There was a small breakthrough overnight, however, when Francis sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew through Chinese airspace. The last time a pope sought to come to South Korea – St. John Paul II in 1989 – Beijing refused to let his Alitalia charter fly overhead.
Park, the South Korean president, said she hoped the pope’s presence would heal the Korean Peninsula’s “long wounds of division,” referring to the 1950-53 Korean War, which continues to divide the Koreas along the world’s most heavily guarded border.
“Division has been a big scar for all Koreans,” she said.
Francis sought to encourage the pursuit of peace.
“Korea’s quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world,” he said. “May all of us dedicate these days to peace: to praying for it and deepening our resolve to achieve it.”
The pope is also expected to meet with some families of victims of the South Korean ferry sinking in April. The government’s response to the disaster, which killed mostly high school students, has angered many South Koreans.
“A lot of bad things keep happening in our country right now, and people are going through tough times,” said Ryun Sun-hee, a 19-year-old college student. “So I hope this event can encourage people and bring more positive things to our country.”
South Korea’s church, which has been growing steadily over the last half century, is seen as a model for the future. Local church officials hope for a continuing increase in believers in a country that once welcomed missionaries to help spread the faith but now sends its own priests and nuns abroad to evangelize in other countries.
Park credited Catholics in South Korea with playing a big part in making the country what it has become: South Korea has risen from poverty, war and dictatorship into Asia’s fourth biggest economy. She called the Korean martyrs “pioneers who spread freedom and equality,” and said their sacrifice helped develop Korean society.
There was high anticipation in South Korea ahead of the visit. Banners and posters welcoming the pope decorated streets and subway stations. The Yonhap news agency reported an increase in sales of rosaries and other Catholic goods, and special displays of books on the pope and Catholicism sprung up in book stores.