Update as of 03.35am EDT: Pope Francis reached out to China Thursday, as he was flying into South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years.
Reuters reports that the Pope sent a message from his plane that to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
“Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation.”
Beijing and the Vatcian have a strained relationship, and do not have diplomatic relations. The Wall Street Journal reports that the gesture could mark an attempt by the Holy See to repair relations with the country, which have long been strained over the Chinese authorities' insistence on appointing bishops without papal consent.
North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into waters off the country’s east coast on Thursday, less than an hour before Pope Francis’ visit to Seoul, South Korea's Ministry of Defense said, according to media reports.
Officials reportedly said that the projectiles, which traveled about 135 miles, were fired with the help of multiple launchers from the port city of Wonsan on the eastern coast of North Korea. But, other details about the rockets were unclear, media reports said. The last missile was fired just 35 minutes before the pope -- who is on the first papal visit to South Korea in 25 years -- was due to land at an air base.
"They are presumed to have been fired from a 300-millimeter multiple rocket launcher," a spokesperson for the defense ministry said, according to Agence France-Presse, or AFP, adding that the South has increased vigilance along the border.
The recent firing also reportedly comes ahead of military exercises between the United States and South Korea scheduled to begin Monday. Although both the nations say that the drills are defensive in nature, North Korea has expressed its disapproval stating that these drills will put Pyongyang’s security at risk.
Authorities in North Korea also declined an invitation from church officials in the South to attend the visit of Francis, citing their displeasure with the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military drills. However, the 77-year-old pope plans to send a message of peace to Pyongyang when he conducts a Mass for peace and reconciliation in Seoul, on the last day of his five-day trip.
The North had reportedly sent a warning to the South, in a statement, saying that military drills “should be canceled unconditionally” or else it would push both the sides "to the brink of war,” the Economic Times reported, citing AFP.
For several months, military tension between the two Koreas has been elevated, and the North has condemned the presence of U.S. troops in the South. The U. S. has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.
North Korea last fired short-range projectiles in late July, and has repeatedly said that the rocket-firing test was aimed at deterring U.S. forces in South Korea.