Updated: August 13, 2014 10:12 PM GMT
Pope Francis greets South Korean President Park Geun-Hye on his arrival in Seoul on Thursday. (Photo by Steve Finch/ucanews.com)
Pope Francis’ message of peace as he landed in South Korea on Thursday was partly overshadowed by North Korea as it test-fired rockets in the seas around the divided peninsula.
An hour before the pope was welcomed at Seoul’s military air base by President Park Geun-hye, the north appeared to be trying to upstage the landmark visit by firing three rockets, followed by two more on Thursday afternoon as Francis met again with Park at the presidential office.
“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,” the pope said in a speech following a 45-minute discussion with Park at the Blue House.
The South Korean president mixed reconciliation with accusations aimed at the north in her address as she called for the regime of Kim Jong-un to end its uranium-enrichment program.
“North Korea’s nuclear program must stop,” she said.
With the Koreas set for a grim 70-year anniversary of their division next year, Park noted that 70,000 families remain separated on either side of the Demilitarized Zone as she called for greater human exchange between the north and the south.
Welcoming the first papal visit to the divided Korean peninsula in 25 years, Park said that Pope Francis would spread a much-needed message of peace during his five-day trip that could help spur the coming together of both sides.
“We want forgiveness to replace strife and reunification to replace division,” she said.
Following Thursday’s rocket tests, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued a list of demands it said would improve relations, starting with the cancellation of a US-South Korean military exercise scheduled for Monday, the last day of the pope’s visit.
Thursday’s statement from Pyongyang said the exercise would bring the Korean peninsula “to the brink of war and increase the danger of a nuclear war” and “should be canceled unconditionally”.
The Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drill – designed to counter a North Korean invasion – was cited by the Korean Catholic Association (KCA) in Pyongyang as the main reason the North had decided not to send delegates to the south for the pope’s visit.
“Under these circumstances, coming to Seoul would be an agonizing step,” the KCA said in a written response to the invitation last week.
The South Korean Church had invited Catholics from the North to attend a special “peace and reconciliation mass” on the last day of the papal visit.