By KIM TONG-HYUNG
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pope Francis to visit the officially atheist country, South Korea said on Oct. 9.
South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that Kim told President Moon Jae-in during their summit last month that the pope would be “enthusiastically’’ welcomed in North Korea.
Kim has been intensely engaged in diplomacy in recent months in what’s seen as an effort to leverage his nuclear weapons program for an easing of economic sanctions and military pressure.
North Korea strictly controls the religious activities of its people, and a similar invitation for then-Pope John Paul II to visit after a 2000 inter-Korean summit never resulted in a meeting. The Vatican insisted at the time that a papal visit would only be possible if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.
The Vatican’s priests were expelled by North Korea long ago and state-appointed laymen officiate services.
Estimates of the number of North Korean Catholics range from 800 to about 3,000, compared to more than 5 million in South Korea.