Pope Francis served the ball into Kim Jong Un’s court on Thursday, saying that he would visit North Korea if he receives an official invitation.

The Pope made his comment after receiving a verbal invitation to North Korea from visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Vatican on Thursday, according to messages sent to reporters by the South Korean presidential Blue House after the meeting.

The Pope’s conditional response may reflect diplomatic protocols, but there is no line of communication between North Korean and the Vatican. The question is, whether Kim will issue an invitation, as the idea for a Papal visit to North Korea had not been his own.  During their three-day summit in Pyongyang last month, Moon – who is Catholic and whose entourage included a South Korean archbishop – broached the topic. Kim responded that the Pope would be “passionately welcomed” if he made the trip.

It is not clear where this will go next.

Pope Francis (C), South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and his wife Kim Jung-sook (R) talk as they exchange gifts during a private audience at the Vatican on October 18, 2018. (Photo by ALESSANDRO DI MEO / POOL / AFP)
Pope Francis, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook talk during a private audience at the Vatican on October 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Alessandro Di Meo

“President Moon has no business inviting the Pope to another country, so quite naturally, the Pope will not say, ‘Oh, I will go’ – there is official diplomatic protocol: He cannot go if he is not invited,” said Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans. “Let us just say that Kim was just being polite to Moon, and thought to himself, ‘Why invite the Pope? We have no Catholics here.”

Indeed, staff at North Korea’s few places of worship are not linked to international religious brethren: they are state employees, rather than ordained clergy. No previous Pope has visited North Korea, although US evangelist Billy Graham did visit. Christianity is prescribed and its worshippers oppressed in the country. Christian organization Open Doors has North Korea at the top of its watch list among those countries it considers most repressive of Christianity.

Still, Breen suggested there could be advantages if Kim were to receive the Pope. “South Korea is doing its best to help North Korea come in out of the cold and recognizes that there is an international component to this,” he said. “I suspect at the end of this, there will be a visit from the Pope to North Korea.”

The meeting between Moon and the Pope was held behind closed doors at the Holy See, with only South Korean priest Han Hyun-taek present to interpret, according to the Blue House.

Following his meeting with Pope Francis, Moon held a separate meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin.

Curiously, the statement put out by the Vatican after Moon’s meeting did not mention the possibility of a North Korean Papal visit.

Moon lobbies for Kim in EU

Moon’s trip to Rome and the Vatican is part of his ongoing, week-long tour of Europe. After first visiting France, where he met President Emmanuel Macron and hosted an event attended by global K-pop sensation BTS, he arrived in Rome on Tuesday. Later on Thursday, he leaves Italy for Brussels, where he will attend the Asia-Europe Meeting summit.

In Europe, Moon has been pushing a softer international line on North Korea as he seeks to help bring North Korea out of international isolation and into the global community. Some experts believe that both the North and South Korean leaderships were, separately, deeply concerned that the United States could have ignited a war with North Korea late last year – leading to’s Kim’s global charm offensive this year, and Moon’s enthusiastic endorsement of it.

Pope Francis (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in talk during a private audience at the Vatican on October 18, 2018. (Photo by Alessandro DI MEO / POOL / AFP)
Pope Francis and South Korean President Moon Jae-in talk during a private audience at the Vatican on October 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Alessandro Di Meo

Prior to his European trip, Moon had also been playing an intermediary role between North Korea and Washington, helping broker their June summit in Singapore. But while Seoul seeks to engage ever more closely with Pyongyang on projects ranging from sport and cultural exchanges to reforestation initiatives and the relinking of cross-border transport nets, Washington – which demands concrete progress on denuclearization – has been irked.

US President Donald Trump said bluntly that Seoul would need Washington’s “approval” for any sanctions relief or waivers, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was reportedly furious at some of the defense arrangements South Korea struck with North Korea in Pyongyang last month.

If he was hoping for a softer line toward North Korea in Europe, Moon may be disappointed. “We must further encourage North Korea’s denuclearization process by easing UN sanctions when and if we decide the North’s denuclearization process has at least reached a point of no return,” Moon was quoted as saying in Paris.

But he did not win any concessions from Macron, who was negative toward relaxed sanctions on North Korea; nor did he accept the need to open a French embassy in Pyongyang, saying that “leverage” had to be maintained.

Moon will be meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels on Friday. Like France, the United Kingdom holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but it seems highly unlikely that the Brexit-besieged May will be willing to diverge from Trump and Macron over North Korean policy.