The pope tours South Korea — in a Kia

Greeted by schoolchildren (and a North Korean missile test), Pope Francis arrived in Seoul on Thursday for a five-day visit. And much to the delight of his South Korean fans, he traveled through the city in a modest, Korean-made Kia Soul.

 

South Korea has a large (and growing) Catholic community of 5.4 million, about 10 percent of the country's population. Despite that, the last papal visit there was in 1989. For many, this trip symbolizes an increase in the attention paid by the Vatican to growing Catholic populations outside Europe and North America. The pope's agenda includes a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean Catholics who died in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Asian Youth Day festival for young Catholics, and a Mass for peace and reconciliation with North Korea. North Korea reportedly declined an invitation from the Archdiocese of Seoul to send a small group of Catholics to the ceremony.

The pope will also meet in private with the families of the about 300 victims of the Sewol ferry disaster in April. Some of those family members were on hand to greet the pope upon his arrival in the country. According to the New York Times, Francis told the father of victim Park Seong-ho that "my heart aches for you." He held hands with the family members, who were in tears. 


Pope Francis, bottom center, laughs with bishops as he signs a guestbook during a meeting with Korean bishops in Seoul. (Pool photo by Yonhap via Associated Press)

In a break with tradition, Francis and his delegation were allowed to fly through Chinese airspace on their way to South Korea. Francis also has another Asia trip on his calendar, in January, when he will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

The pope sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he entered China, reading, “I extend my best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation." However, as The Post's William Wan reported from China, hopes of Vatican-Chinese relations thawing may be premature at best: The country also reportedly refused to let a group of Chinese Catholics participate in the papal visit to their neighboring country.


Pope Francis attends a welcome ceremony at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. (Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Pope Francis at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. (Pool photo by Kim Hong-ji via European Pressphoto Agency)


Pope Francis shakes hands with a nun as he arrives for a meeting with Korean bishops in Seoul. (Pool photo by Yonhap via Associated Press)
Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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