SEOUL, South Korea – Pope Francis called Thursday for renewed efforts to forge peace on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid “fruitless” criticisms and shows of force, opening a five-day visit to South Korea with a message of reconciliation as Seoul’s rival, North Korea, fired five projectiles into the sea.
North Korea has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South, and Thursday’s apparent test firing off its eastern coast made its presence felt.
In the first speech of his first trip to Asia, Francis told South Korean President Park Geun-hye and government officials that peace required forgiveness, co-operation and mutual respect. He said diplomacy must be encouraged so that listening and dialogue replace “mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
The Argentine pope spoke in English, the first English speech of his pontificate. Usually he 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 and the initial three short-range projectiles flew about 220 kilometres (135 miles), according to a South Korean Defence Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules. It wasn’t immediately clear what the projectiles were. After an initial three firings an hour before Francis arrived, North Korea followed up with two others a short time after he landed.
North Korea has conducted an unusually large number of short-range missile and artillery test firings this year. It 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, are expected to start in coming days.
Neither Francis nor Park referred to the firings in their public remarks.
Organizers of the pope’s trip had invited a delegation of North Korean Catholics to attend his Aug. 18 Mass for peace and reconciliation at Seoul’s main cathedral. But late last month, North Korean authorities told the organizers that they wouldn’t participate for various reasons, a Vatican spokesman said.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. The U.S. State Department says North Korea permits no religious freedom at all. Currently, there are no Vatican-sanctioned institutions or resident priests operating in North Korea.
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 plans to 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 car for the trip into Seoul where the official welcome ceremony and speeches took place.
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.”
As his plane flew through Chinese airspace early Thursday, Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a rare opportunity for an exchange since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better ties with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognized church.
Other highlights of Francis’ visit include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia. The pope is also expected to meet with some families 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.
Park said she hoped the pope’s visit would heal the pain many South Koreans are feeling because of the sinking and the recent deaths of young soldiers.
“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.”
It’s the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II travelled to South Korea in 1989. In January, Francis plans to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
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.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this story.