Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang in a gesture designed to highlight peace efforts on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will deliver Kim’s invitation when he meets Francis next week during a trip to Europe, Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said.

"President Moon will visit the Vatican on October 17 and 18 to reaffirm its blessing and support for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula," he told a news briefing.

"Especially when he meets with Pope Francis, he will convey Chairman Kim’s message that he will ardently welcome him if he visits Pyongyang."

Kim told Moon of his wish to meet the pope during September’s summit of the two leaders, the spokesperson added, without elaborating on the timing. The pope has said he wants to visit Japan in 2019.

The Vatican said in a statement the pope will receive Moon at noon on October 17.

The day before, in St Peter’s Basilica, cardinal Pietro Parolin, second-in-command of the pope, will say a "Mass for Peace" devoted to the Korean peninsula. Moon will attend the Mass, the Vatican said.

The invitation to the pope is the first by a North Korean leader since 2000. Although that meeting never materialised, the plan for Francis to visit is the North’s latest diplomatic initiative this year.

Kim held an unprecedented summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, and pledged to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

While Kim’s actions since have fallen short of Washington’s demands, the Trump administration is preparing for a second summit. Before they turned the page on decades of public acrimony, the leaders regularly traded threats and insults as North Korea pushed to develop a nuclear missile capable of hitting the US. The two Koreas held three summits in 2018, following years of confrontation marked by the North’s nuclear and missile tests.

Moon’s European tour, scheduled for October 13 to 21, is primarily meant for him to attend the Asia–Europe Meeting in Belgium, his office said.