Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit North Korea. The news of the invite was shared by South Korea on Tuesday, 9 October, at a press conference ahead of the visit of President Moon Jae-in to Vatican.

According to media reports, Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, told reporters that Kim requested Moon to pass on his invitation to the sovereign of the Vatican City State during the latter’s visit to the city state next week.

“During the meeting with Pope Francis, [President Moon] will relay the message from chairman Kim Jong-un that he would ardently welcome the Pope if he visits Pyongyang,” Kim Eui-kyeom said.

The North Korean Supreme Leader’s invite is being interpreted as a move to further soften his image and comes close on the heels of historic meetings with President Moon and US President Donald Trump, which have so far elicited assurances of denuclearisation from Pyongyang.

Two more inter-Korean summits have contributed to reconciliation between the Western powers and its allies with the nuclear-armed North Korea.

Kim had expressed his desire to host Pope Francis during the last inter-Korean summit in September in which President Moon crossed the border to visit North Korea.

Pope Francis, who is the 266th pope and ex officio leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, had visited South Korea from 14 to 18 August 2014 – his third international pastoral visit since becoming Pope.

Though North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations, it is not the first time that a Pope has been invited by the reclusive Communist country.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, had invited Pope John Paul II in 2000 to visit North Korea. The invite, which never materialised, was extended during a summit meeting with the then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

Though freedom of religion is officially guaranteed in North Korean constitution, religion is controlled by state-controlled institutions and those who practise their faith outside the system are persecuted.