As Francis became the first pope in 25 years to visit South Korea on Thursday, Seoul’s never-timid rival, North Korea, made its presence felt by firing three short-range missiles less than an hour before he arrived, officials said.
Although North Korea declined an invitation to Seoul for the papal visit, Francis plans to reach out to North Korea during his five-day trip in a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-divided Korean Peninsula. But Pyongyang has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South.
The apparent test firing was conducted from Wonsan on the North’s east coast and the projectiles flew about 220 kilometers (135 miles), according to a ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules. It wasn’t immediately clear what the projectiles were.
North Korea this year has conducted an unusually large number of short-range missile and artillery test firings. Pyongyang has expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it says are invasion preparations. A new round of the drills, which Seoul and Washington call routine and defensive, are expected to start in coming days.
During his visit, Francis also plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.
At an airport just south of Seoul, the pope shook hands with four relatives of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith.
Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made car for the trip into Seoul, where he and President Park Geun-hye were expected to make speeches.
“Because our country has undergone many unfortunate situations, South Korean people are heartbroken. My wish is that the pope’s visit can heal those heartbroken people,” said Cho Young-rae, a 58-year-old Buddhist.
As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea early Thursday, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a rare opportunity for an exchange since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognized church.
Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but Thursday’s telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.
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