President Moon Jae-in returned home Sunday after a nine-day trip to Europe, where he had two major diplomatic objectives -- arranging a visit to North Korea by Pope Francis and persuading European leaders to ease sanctions on North. He scored a half-success.
Moon’s visit to five European capitals had been arranged in time for the biennial Asia-Europe Meeting that brought together 21 Asian and 30 European leaders to Brussels.
He also visited Copenhagen to attend the inaugural meeting of the Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030, a global network of government, business and civil society organizations to advance solutions to deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.
On the sidelines of the two multilateral meetings, Moon held bilateral talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. He also visited the Vatican and France.
Moon’s visit to the Holy See appeared successful as the president, himself a Roman Catholic, was warmly received by the pontiff and other leaders of the church. More importantly, Moon, who had already brokered a historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, laid the ground for a papal visit to the North.
Moon’s aides said that the pope indicated his willingness to visit the North if it sends him an official invitation. Moon had said that during his visit to Pyongyang last month, Kim told him that the North would welcome the pope wholeheartedly.
Moon’s aides who were present in the closed-door meeting said the pope said that he was “available” for a visit to North and that he would give an answer if an invitation arrives. This certainly is a positive reaction, which raises the possibility of Pope Francis becoming the first head of the Catholic Church to visit North Korea.
The pope has already expressed his wish to visit Japan early next year, which makes a visit to North Korea more plausible. A papal visit to the socialist country should be welcome as it would facilitate the ongoing Korean peace process and offer an opportunity to press the North to allow freedom of religion and improve its human rights conditions.
Indeed, the pope, who had already mentioned and prayed for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula frequently, supported Moon’s efforts to engage North Korea and resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically.
“Move forward without stopping. Do not be afraid,” the pope was quoted as telling Moon. It was not clear in what context the pope made the remarks, but Korean officials took them as a papal blessing for Moon’s endeavors to resolve the nuclear problem peacefully and improve relations with the North.
But Moon, whose impatient push to appease the North is even creating some friction with the US, failed to win the same full blessing from European leaders for his call for sanctions relief on the North.
In his meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, Moon sought to enlist their support for his call for easing sanctions on the North, which he said was necessary to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process.
But both Macron and May -- while generally supporting Moon’s peace efforts, made it clear that the international sanctions must be maintained for now. Macron emphasized a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and May also urged Pyongyang to prove its commitment to complete denuclearization with more concrete action.
The fact that the ASEM leaders adopted a chairman’s statement clarifying a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization - a term to which the North reacts sensitively and which Moon replaced with a “full denuclearization” - highlights European leaders’ position.
Moon may encounter the same response when he attends the Asia-Pacific Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea and the G-20 summit in Argentina next month.