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(LEAD) Ruling party expects pope's visit to N.K. to speed up denuclearization

All Headlines 15:59 October 19, 2018

(ATTN: ADDS more details throughout)

SEOUL, Oct. 19 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Democratic Party (DP) on Friday expressed hope that Pope Francis' potential visit to North Korea will help speed up denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The pope effectively accepted an invitation to visit North Korea on Thursday when President Moon Jae-in relayed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's verbal invitation. Pope Francis said if the North sends an official invitation, he will "certainly" respond to it.

"The pope's possible visit to North Korea indicates the international community's support for peace on the Korean Peninsula," Hong Young-pyo, the DP's floor leader, said at a meeting with senior party members.

"If realized, his trip will be momentum to induce the North toward the path to denuclearization," he said. "We need a flexible approach to elicit (Pyongyang's) denuclearization."

The North's leader expressed his willingness to invite the pope to his country during his third and latest summit with Moon in Pyongyang last month, according to Moon's office.

No pope has ever visited North Korea.

Seoul's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae expects that a papal visit could help expedite the process to bring peace to the divided peninsula, the world's last remaining vestige of the Cold War.

For North Korea, the pope's visit can help its efforts to become a normal state and improve ties with the U.S.

There are thought to be some 3,000 Catholic believers in North Korea, according to a doctoral thesis by Catholic priest Kim Yeon-soo.

North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But in practice the regime is widely known to restrict religious activities among its people.

In the early 1990s, the North's founder Kim Il-sung pushed for a papal visit, but the move fell through.

During the 2000 summit with the North's leader Kim Jong-il, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung suggested that the North accept Pope John Paul II's visit. The North invited the pope to Pyongyang, but the trip was also not realized due to the North's inactiveness.

Lee Hae-chan, the chief of the DP, earlier said that he heard that Pope Francis hopes to travel to the North next spring, without revealing the source of his information.

Chung Dong-young, the chief of the minor opposition Party for Democracy and Peace, told a radio program Friday that he sees next spring as the prime time for the papal visit, given the situations on the divided peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) holds hands with Pope Francis while paying a courtesy call on the pontiff in the Vatican on Oct. 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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