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NK fires rockets before pope’s visit to Seoul

North Korea’s last rocket was fired 35 minutes before Pope Francis was due to arrive at an air base in South Korea’s Seoul

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North Korea fired three short-range rockets off its east coast before Pope Francis arrived Thursday in South Korea on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter century.

The short-range rockets were fired from multiple launchers in the North Korean port city of Wonsan and travelled 220 km (135 miles) before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula, a defence ministry official told Agence France-Presse.

The last rocket was fired 35 minutes before Pope Francis was due to arrive at an air base in Seoul, where the pontiff started a five-day visit to South Korea.

The launches came ahead of U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday. Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive in nature but North Korea regularly protests against the drills, which it sees as a rehearsal for war.

Pope Francis arrives in North Korea

Pope Francis stepped off a plane onto a red carpet and greeting the president, local Catholics and grieving relatives.

During his five-day visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.

At an airport just south of Seoul, the pope shook hands with four relatives of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith.

Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made car for the trip into Seoul, where he and President Park Geun-hye were expected to make speeches.

Pope sends greeting to China

As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea early Thursday, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Associated Press reported.

It was a rare opportunity for an exchange since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognized church.

Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but Thursday’s telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

Vatican officials say there is a dialogue with Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them – Rome’s insistence on naming bishops - remains.

(With AFP and Associated Press)