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Pope’s North visit tested by Jo’s disappearance

Jan 08,2019
The disappearance of the former North Korean acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song-gil, is putting a damper on a possible visit by Pope Francis to Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reached out to the Vatican and invited the pope for a visit to Pyongyang through South Korean President Moon Jae-in last October. The pontiff has likewise expressed his willingness to visit Pyongyang through his officials, and working-level exchanges have been taking place.

Pyongyang received a delegation of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization which has provided humanitarian aid to North Korea for the past six years last month. The organization can be seen as representing the Vatican, and the North treated them with utmost courtesy during their visit. The group was received in person by Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of North Korea.

The Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio has for the past six years provided aid, including food, medicines and medical equipment, to Wonsan Pediatric Hospital in North Korea’s Kangwon Province. It has also provided food aid for the elderly living in state-run facilities in Munchon.

A delegation of the Community of Sant’Egidio, led by Marco Impagliazzo, visited Pyongyang last December “in the spirit of humanitarian cooperation and dialogue with the country,” according to the organization.

The group has been a strong supporter of dialogue with Pyongyang and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim, the president of North Korea’s Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, was said to have thanked Sant’Egidio for the support and expressed hope for further cooperation in the future, including in the field of culture and education, according to the organization.

A source familiar with the Vatican said that this is the first time in six years that Kim met with the Sant’Egidio delegation, an indication that North Korea is working to reach out to the Vatican for the pope’s visit.

However, Jo, who has been serving as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy since the fall of 2017, vanished from his embassy in Rome in November. He is reportedly seeking asylum in a third country, leaving a void in communication between the Vatican and Pyongyang. The delegation also met with Im Chon-il, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister for Europe, and discussed relations between the community and the development of international peace. The delegation visited various Christian associations as well as the Changchung Cathedral in Pyongyang.

North Korea is seen as putting in further efforts to reach out to Sant’Egidio ahead of a possible visit by the pope, especially as the North does not have a separate mission in the Vatican. Thus, the North Korean Embassy in Italy serves as a liaison role.

With the development of inter-Korean relations last year, the North’s Korean Council of Religionists, an association that includes Catholic and Protestant churches, sent South Korea a rare Christmas video message. This is seen as a gesture of openness by North Korea, considering that it generally forbids religious practices, though it operates state-authorized religious groups and churches.

However, the disappearance of a key contact point, the former acting ambassador of North Korea to Italy, Jo Song-gil, is seen as a setback on exchanges between the Vatican and Pyongyang. Italian media has reported that Jo played a key role in arranging North Korea’s invitation of the pope to Pyongyang.

Since Jo’s disappearance, the North Korean Embassy in Rome appears not to have been able to pick up from where Jo left off despite hopes that the pope can make a visit to Pyongyang coinciding with a planned trip to Japan.

BY KIM SUNG-TAK, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]