Why A Papal Visit to North Korea Could Be A Step In A Better Direction For Both Institutions

In the latest of a series of moves that have seemed to herald a new, more liberal trajectory for North Korea, Dictator Kim Jong-Un has announced that he’s to invite the Pope to visit the mysterious country for the first time in its history. While some have claimed that the Pope ought to distance itself from the state, in which serious restrictions on individual freedom of worship plague its citizens daily, a Papal visit could instead be instrumental in opening the hermit kingdom up to the outside world.

The Christian church has an extremely strong presence in Korea – almost a third of South Korea’s citizens are Christians, including its president, Moon Jae-in. The religion boasted a modest stream of converts from its introduction to Korea in the 17th century but started to explode when American money began to pour into the nation in the 1880s. When the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910, Christianity became central to the Korean independence movement – its adherents were zealous in their refusal to engage in the Japanese emperor-worship mandated by new laws which aimed to harmonise Korean culture with that of their oppressive neighbour. With the Church continuing to operate in the now essentially banned the Korean language, Korean nationalists and freedom fighters flooded in.

This connection Christianity has to the liberal nationalist movement in Korea is part of what makes this potential visit so important – it symbolises Korean unity, the struggle for fair and just governance, for love and compassion and all that good stuff that seems so distant to the scandal-ridden church here in the west. By reminding not just Korean Christians but all Koreans of these values, the church stands in a potentially instrumental position to further liberalise a country most of us had given up hope for long ago.

This tradition of standing up against tyranny extends beyond the Korean church mind you. Indeed, despite an ever-decreasing reputation in the west, the church has long been an important mechanism for opposing dictators around the world. The liberal, open, style of Pope Francis has oft been compared to Pope John Paul II, arguably the most loved and acclaimed Pope of modern times. John Paul famously embarked on numerous tours to dictatorships in which his impassioned pleas for universal kindness caused cracks to appear in previously iron-fisted facades. Indeed the fall of authoritarian regimes in Haiti, Chile, Poland and even the Soviet Union itself have all been credited to the John Paul’s actions as Pope. By reaffixing the Papacy to this liberal tradition, Francis has a golden opportunity to recapture some of the majesty which the office has been haemorrhaging in this age of sex scandals and acrimonious political battles.

The Papacy exists in a funny spot, perched precariously between this plane and the next, administering to a grubby, fallen, human world while allegedly legitimised by the pristine grandeur of heaven. This position gives the papacy great power to ignore injustice, rendering unto the world’s Caesars an undeserved silence while perhaps bemoaning their lack of temporal authority. After the Second World War, the Church was repeatedly asked of its attempts to prevent bloodshed: ‘was it enough?’. Shamefully, the answer is of course: No. But the church doesn’t have to be so restrained – its position also grants it the ability to force change, to deliver the lessons of love and compassion so central to its existence. The Pope should go to Korea, he should remind those in power of these lessons and maybe, in the best possible future for Korea, Francis could face down that old question – ‘was it enough?’ And this time, say yes.

Scott Alexander

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.