Pope Francis started his five-day visit to South Korea by making a public speech in English for the first time and riding inside a compact Kia hatchback.
The pope read a 10-minute speech in English at the Presidential office in Seoul, noting Korea’s lack of peace, challenges facing solidarity and reconciliation, and the need to educate the young. Although he did not directly mention North Korea, the references were clear, with his speech following an address by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who dedicated most of her message slamming the North.
“Catholics in North Korea had been stripped of their assets, religious leaders kidnapped and murdered,” she said at the welcome ceremonial speech. The South Korean government is “trying best to follow the road of peace, instead of war and nuclear weapons,” she stressed.
“We trust the pope’s wish is also a denuclearized Korean peninsula,” she said.
Before the pope’s arrival, North Korea test-fired three short-range projectiles from Wonsan, the North’s eastern coast. Two more were fired after he landed. The projectiles flew about 135 miles, according to the Ministry of Defense. North Korea this year has conducted an unusually high number of artillery tests expressing anger over joint military exercises between the United States and South Korean forces.
Excitement and anticipation is high in the streets of Seoul with images of the pope decorating roadside banners and subway stations, mega-size welcome posters hanging from buildings and Korean television stations broadcasting his every public moment.
Pope Francis, 77, has been studying his English to communicate better with the English-speaking Asians without a translator, according to a news release by the preparatory Committee of the Papal Visit to Korea. He sent a video message in English to the Philippines last year, but never a public speech.
“English is the only universal language that he could communicate with people in Asia,” said Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Notre Dame.
”It’s a symbolic gesture, making an overture to connect with the Asian youth, but it does put an enormous amount of pressure on him that his English is understandable.”
Unlike his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who fluently spoke eight and seven languages, respectively, Pope Francis normally speaks Italian at public appearances, at times – but rarely – his mother tongue, Spanish. In his biography, El Jesuita, written by Sergio Rubin, he had admitted difficulties in learning phonetics of English words because he is “tone deaf.”
For South Koreans, it was the pope’s choice of a modest, locally made Kia Soul car that fascinated the public rather than his new attempt at an English speech. The papal ride from the airport to the city was broadcast live, showing images of the entourage in the dark gray car escorted front and back by dozens of luxury SUVs and police motorbikes.
“It was just funny, how he climbed into a tiny car like a cat going for a small cozy space,” said Kim Ji-hwan, a journalism student in Seoul. “It’s humbling and at the same time respectful. The Korean Protestant priests at mega-churches ride Mercedes-Benz.”
The five-day papal visit is tightly-scheduled, with the pontiff expected to travel more than 620 miles. He plans to meet with children; relatives of the 300 victims, mostly school children, from the sunken Sewol ferry in April; the disabled; immigrants; as well as officials.