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Benedict Rogers

Pope must be careful with North Korean poisoned chalice

If he's prepared to speak the truth to liars and murderers, Pope Francis should visit Pyongyang
Published: November 02, 2021 03:55 AM GMT

Updated: November 17, 2022 06:41 AM GMT

Pope must be careful with North Korean poisoned chalice

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks to the Political Bureau of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Sept. 2. (Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS) 

When South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in met Pope Francis in Rome last Friday, he handed him not only a cross made with barbed wire from a fence in the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone but a poisoned chalice. He issued an appeal to the pope to visit North Korea “when the opportunity arises,” describing such an occasion as providing the “momentum for peace.”

Most papal visits are relatively uncontroversial, and even in the most difficult of situations are usually timed at moments when progress already underway could be encouraged and advanced. Pope Francis’ visits to Myanmar and Iraq, for example, took place when both places were under positive — if fragile — transitions to liberalization.

A visit to North Korea has been in the rumor mill for a while. My message to the Vatican, for what it’s worth, is to be cautious. I would not say do not ever go to Pyongyang — after all, I myself have visited, together with one of Britain’s leading Catholic parliamentarians and human rights champions, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and another doughty defender of human rights, Baroness Cox, a decade ago.

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I firmly believe that we need to use every tool available to push the doors of freedom, and that sometimes — when the time and conditions are right — includes dialogue with dictators. Indeed, any transition or liberation must include some element of dialogue and reconciliation combined with justice and accountability. And sometimes that requires brave, bold, out-of-the-box initiatives. So, to quote 007, I am not one who says never say never again.

However, if any papal visit to the world’s most closed, most repressed state is ever to be meaningful, certain conditions must be required by the Vatican. I would suggest five.

First, for the pope to even consider going to the darkest corner of the world, a flicker of light must be lit. Kim Jong-un must disband the prison camps, release all prisoners and allow international, independent monitors into the country to verify the conditions. That would signal some hint of progress on human rights in a country where every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated.

Fourth, there must be an absolute guarantee, monitored by international observers, that there will be no reprisals or repercussions against those whom the pope meets

Second, there must be a commitment to respect freedom of religion or belief, open churches and allow Christians — and indeed those of other faiths — unrestricted access to places of worship without hindrance or fear. No more Potemkin-style churches with congregations bussed in to entertain the foreigners. There must be places of genuine worship — permanently.

Third, the pope must be able to meet survivors of the prison camps, especially but not exclusively Christians, hear their testimonies and provide spiritual and pastoral healing for their wounds.

Fourth, there must be an absolute guarantee, monitored by international observers, that there will be no reprisals or repercussions against those whom the pope meets.

And fifth, the pope himself must give an undertaking that he will speak out for human rights, justice, religious freedom, human dignity and peace in Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-un must guarantee that the pope can do so.

Failure to meet any one of these five conditions should mean such a visit is a non-starter. But upholding and delivering all five conditions could — just could — deliver the very early sprouts of a breakthrough.

When Pope St. John Paul II went on his first visit to his native Poland, not long after he became pope, he concluded his homily in Victory Square, Warsaw, on June 2, 1979, with these words:

Let your Spirit descend.

Let your Spirit descend.

and renew the face of the earth,

the face of this land.”

When I visited Pyongyang in 2010, I sat in a hotel room one night watching the documentary Nine Days That Changed the World with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox. I remember noting the question that Stalin had asked — “How many divisions has the pope?” Stalin got his answer from John Paul II in 1979. I wonder when Kim Jong-un — and for that matter Xi Jinping — might receive their answer from Francis.

If he’s prepared to speak the truth to liars and murderers and to light a bright light in the darkest corner of the world, with all the conditions already mentioned, then I will back a visit by Pope Francis all the way. I do not want to stand in the way of something that the Holy Spirit might be directing, far bigger, better, braver and wiser than me.

But if not, then he should not go, because he should never proffer the Chair of St. Peter to the most brutal tyrants of the world.

* Benedict Rogers is a writer, human rights activist, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His story of becoming a Catholic in Myanmar is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church”. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

4 Comments on this Story
Why are you so negative for this matter? Jesus has said that "A doctor is very much needed for patients not for healthy ones.
You sound pretty harsh on the North Koreans while never mentioning how it is they ended up between a rock and a hard place. And to say in your article that you aren't saying the pope shouldn't go there is preposterous, after all, you titled your article that he should beware of poison. As if the North Koreans would kill him for coming. Maybe the pope could say something that would help the North Korean people to have an easier life...maybe he could condemn US sanctions.
What is the proof that the "chalice given to the pope by Korea's President" was poisoned? How is that possible?
I am a South Korean and a Catholic sister. I am surprised at your negative comment on President Moon Jae-in who will never give a poisoned chalice to anybody. I suppose he has as many information as you have, and he and most of South Koreans hope that this is a good time to work for peace with North Korea. Yes, this is a time of discernment, and I believe we should at least respect each other's effort to make the best discernment within their ability. Thank you.

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