Editor’s Note: Thae Yong Ho was serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he chose to defect with his family to South Korea in 2016. Following the recent release of his book, “Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat,” and his departure from the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), he has committed himself to improving the outlook for those still living in the DPRK. His current efforts focus on information sharing and the power of education to effect change.
As one of the highest-ranking diplomats to ever defect, Thae has teamed up with Daily NK and its broader media consortium, Unification Media Group, for a weekly series to share his unparalleled insight into the North Korean system, ethos, and strategic thinking, while unpacking his vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
During the Pyongyang inter-Korean Summit in September, President Moon Jae In recommended Kim Jong Un to invite the Pope to Pyongyang.
In return, Kim Jong Un stated that he would warmly welcome the Pope should he visit.
Following this, President Moon Jae In will visit the Vatican on the 18th and deliver Kim Jong Un’s official invitation to the Pope.
It is not possible to check whether Kim Jong Un was actually serious about inviting the Pope or whether he just agreed out of courtesy.
However, while news of a potential visit by the Pope started to spread, it was reported that Ri Jong Hyok, director of North Korea’s National Reunification Institute and member of the Supreme People’s Assembly left for the Conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva, Switzerland on October 11.
Ri Jong Hyok is the son of Ri Ki Yong, a famous novelist who went to North Korea from the South, and was also a few years ahead of Kim Jong Il at Namsan Senior High School.
He was also the one who directly proposed changing North Korea’s policy on religion to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the end of the 1980s as a way of getting the country out of diplomatic isolation.
Ri Jong Hyok was dispatched by Kim Jong Il as the Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in the late 1980’s with the task of establishing secret negotiations with the Vatican.
After many under-the-table negotiations, the Vatican’s Delegation, including Priest Jang Ik from the Archdiocese of Seoul, made its first visit to North Korea in 1987.
The visit of the old North Korean lady catholic believer, Hong Do Suk (Teresa), to the Vatican in 1988, which I wrote about in my memoir, Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat, was also organized by Ri Jong Hyok.
Additionally, the Korean Catholic Association was established in June 1988 under the recommendation of Ri Jong Hyok.
Thus, the fact that Ri Jong Hyok, the person who first connected North Korea to Catholicism, is in Geneva right now makes me think that there are under-the-table negotiations being held between North Korea and with the Vatican regarding a visit by the Pope.
Whatever Kim Jong Un’s intentions are, I sincerely hope that the Pope will visit North Korea.
The only churches in North Korea are Bongsu church, Chilgol church and Changchung Cathedral in Pyongyang.
And these are merely for propaganda and under the regime control use.
Whether the state-approved attendees of these churches are real believers or not can only be known by the attendees themselves.
However, from what I heard while I was in North Korea, though the church attendees were originally fake believers who were dispatched by the Workers’ Party, after attending church for a long time, they slowly began to become real believers.
The Kim Dynasty are “living gods” in North Korea.
If Kim Jong Un really wants to escape international isolation and receive investments from overseas, then he needs to give the North Korean people the freedom of religion.
Of course, if the Pope visits North Korea, the State will mobilize a great deal of people, put up many fake believers and put on a big show.
However, even if it is through these means, “love” and “faith” needs to be spread in North Korea so that believers in North Korea can have the hope and belief that ‘the church is still alive and that God has not abandoned them.’
If even one more church or one more cross is put up in North Korea because of the Pope’s visit to North Korea, that in itself will be a huge achievement.
After all, all change in this world begins through the change of people’s beliefs.
I hope for a brave decision from the Pope.