KOREA - Pope Francis called for peace on the divided Korean Peninsula as he began his five-day apostolic voyage to South Korea on Thursday.
In his first public address since his arrival in the morning, the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide stressed that only dialogue, not displays of force, will lead to lasting peace.
"I can only express my appreciation for the efforts being made in favour of reconciliation and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and to encourage those efforts, for they are the only sure path to lasting peace," the 77-year-old pontiff said at the South Korean presidential office in Seoul.
He delivered the speech in English, shortly after summit talks with President Park Geun-hye.
In a blunt reminder of an unfinished war on the peninsula, North Korea test-fired five short-range projectiles into the sea -- three less than an hour before the pope's arrival and two more a short time after.
South Korea is technically still at war with the reclusive communist state, which is persistently trying to develop nuclear weapons.
"Korea's quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world," the pope said, adding that "peace is not simply the absence of war, but 'the work of justice.'"
In a separate speech, Park called on the North to drop its nuclear ambitions in order to move toward peace and prosperity.
"I believe that achieving a unification of the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons is an aspiration of peace-loving people in the world, including His Holiness, Pope Francis," Park said.
Peace and Asian youths are high on the agenda for the pope who has travelled to this part of the world for the first time since taking over the papacy in March last year.
He is also expected to give a strong message of encouragement to a small but strong local church which exemplifies much of what he hopes for the Catholic Church around the world.
Catholicism has grown remarkably in this country from nonexistence 230 years ago to the third-largest faith after Protestantism and Buddhism. Now, about 5.4 million Koreans are Catholic, roughly 11 per cent of the population.
The pontiff arrived at Seoul Air Base in Seoul's southeastern suburbs at around 10:15 a.m., after an 11 ½ hour flight from Rome.
He was greeted by President Park, representatives from the Roman Catholic Church in Korea and a small crowd of lay people from various walks of life.
"I hope that our people of Korea will get a warm consolation from your visit and that it will lead to a new era of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula," the president said to the pope, clasping his hands.