Pope Francis leaves on Wednesday for five days in South Korea, his first outing to Asia. The pontiff is scheduled to meet government leaders and to take part in an Asian Catholic youth festival, beatify a group of Korean martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries, and also meet family members of victims of the recent Sewol shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives, and will lay out a role for the church’s mission in Asia in a speech to bishops from the continent.
The outing poses challenges to Francis the peacemaker on multiple levels. First is the division of Korea itself. Francis will try to send signals of openness across the DMZ that separates the peninsula, without provoking the North Korean regime. He’ll want to promote reconciliation but can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the problems in the north, including an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 believed to languish in forced labor camps.
There’s no indication Francis will spring another surprise by inviting leaders of the two Koreas to join him for a peace prayer in the Vatican, as he did with the Israelis and Palestinians while visiting the Middle East in late May. North Korea has spurned an invitation to send a delegation to an August 18 papal Mass in Seoul.
In addition to the North Koreans, Francis will be speaking to another party that won’t be physically present but will certainly be listening: China, especially President Xi Jinping, with whom Francis has already had backdoor contact. China is one of just a handful of nations without diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Vatican wants to improve the lot of China’s roughly 13 million Catholics, many of whom are compelled to practice their faith underground.
Francis is certainly conscious that martyrdom is very much with us in the here and now. For one thing, he can’t ignore the fact that just across the DMZ to the north, Christians face a systematic form of persecution that’s arguably the most grotesque anywhere in the world. Since the armistice in 1953 that stabilized the division of the peninsula, some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have simply disappeared and are presumed dead.
The anti-Christian animus in North Korea is so strong that even people with Christian grandparents are frozen out of the most important jobs — a grand irony, given that founder Kim Il Sung’s mother was a Presbyterian deaconess.
It would be odd indeed if Francis were to celebrate the memories of martyrs from three centuries ago without at least acknowledging the reality that many Koreans today are paying a similar price. Figuring out how to do that in a way that doesn’t anger the North Koreans, potentially making life even more difficult for Christians, will be among the pontiff’s stiffest challenges.