Pope Francis began his five-day visit to South Korea Thursday by encouraging “diplomacy” and dialogue rather than “fruitless criticisms” with the North. The pope began in the morning with a speech to South Korean President Park Geun-hye and senior officials in which he urged Koreans to set an example for future generations.
“I came here thinking of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula,” Francis said in his speech to Park and others. "Diplomacy ... is based on the firm and persevering conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.” His speech came just a few hours after North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into the waters off the country’s east coast as his plane entered South Korean airspace.
The pope’s visit to the Korean Peninsula, the first trip by a pontiff to Asia since John Paul II's in 1999, indicates that the Vatican recognizes its emerging Catholic following there. While Catholicism is a minority religion in most Asian countries, it continues to grow. South Korea’s Catholic population is currently just over 5.4 million, or about 10.4 percent of the population.
"The pope's visit to South Korea is the first part of a very intelligent opening to Asia," Lionel Jensen, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Notre Dame, told CNN. "The pope's presence is a powerful symbol of the Vatican's recognition that it is in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that the church is growing most prominently."
During his visit to the divided peninsula, Pope Francis is expected to celebrate Mass with family members of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, which killed some 300 people, mostly teenagers, in April. He will also beatify 124 Korean martyrs who were killed for their faith and attend a Catholic youth festival.