AP Analysis: Pope gets crash course in tangled inter-Korean politics, victory with English use

The heads of AP's Rome and Seoul bureaus look at the achievements and lessons of Pope Francis' trip to South Korea:



In a whirlwind five-day trip to South Korea, Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs, kissed almost as many babies and rallied thousands of Asian youth. It might be his use of English, though, that will define his first trip to Asia.

The Argentinian pope not only gave speeches in a language he has expressed discomfort with, he also ad-libbed and even joked around — a linguistic victory deemed crucial to the church's push to make Asia a future focal point of the religion.

While churches in Christian Europe shrivel, Catholicism is seeing growth in South Korea and other parts of Asia. To make strong inroads, the head of the church must be able to communicate in a region where many people's second language is English.

The South Korean trip was a test run for Francis' English, and the pleasant exchanges he had with young people here pleased Vatican officials.

Francis' health was another takeaway from the trip.

Though he looked exhausted Monday before leaving for Rome, the 77-year-old workaholic pope, who has only one full lung and a bad back, withstood the rigors of a grueling schedule halfway around the world in a foreign culture.

He seemed cheerful and engaged throughout, despite a sometimes dawn-to-dusk agenda that had him traveling each day, sometimes in multiple helicopter rides.

The trip also shows that the Vatican will likely make more martyrs into saints as a way to connect with Catholics. Hundreds of thousands gathered for a Mass in Seoul in which the pope beatified 124 Korean martyrs who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A telling moment came when the pope was asked by a young Cambodian about the lack of saints from her country. The pope promised to get "my friend Angelo" to work on it, referring to Cardinal Angelo Amato, the head of the Vatican's saint-making office.

For this pope, the recognition of martyrdom is important because it provides a powerful link between today's Catholics and those who died for their faith. That, the Vatican believes, gives Catholics role models from their own cultures they can look up to.


Winfield, the AP's acting bureau chief in Rome, has covered the Vatican for years. She traveled on the papal plane with Pope Francis to South Korea.



The pope dazzled South Koreans, riding around Seoul in a cheap compact car and posing for selfie cellphone shots with youngsters, but his calls for peace and equality almost immediately ran into two hard facts of life here: North Korea's fury with a continuing massive U.S. military presence six decades after the end of the Korean War, and, in the South, a national tendency to see material goods as signifiers of hard-won success.

North Korea bookended the pope's visit with rocket launches at the start and threats of war at the end.

Both outbursts had more to do with long-running North Korean fury over joint U.S.-South Korean military drills — the most recent of which began Monday with tens of thousands of troops — than with the pope. The allies call the drills routine and defensive; North Korea insists they are invasion preparation.

But the North's actions provided a crash course for the Vatican in the tangled knot that is inter-Korean relations.

Six decades of bloodshed, mistrust and a deepening nuclear standoff between the democratic South and the authoritarian North underscore how difficult it is to achieve the pope's plea for the rivals to reject the "mindset of suspicion and confrontation" that clouds their relations and to find new ways to forge peace.

In the South, Francis scored a quick public relations victory and won praise for his humility when, on landing Thursday, he plopped himself down in a tiny car that would be snubbed by most CEOs and government leaders.

But the pope's later plea that South Koreans fight the allure of materialism and "unbridled competition" will be a tough sell in a land where the trappings of wealth are often seen as the rightful spoils of the generations who clawed their way out of poverty, war and dictatorship to build Asia's fourth biggest economy.

The Vatican has high hopes for the growth of South Korea's more than 5 million believers, but the local church has said it would be pleased if the pope's visit also leads to a flourishing of devotion in Catholics who have drifted from the faith.

A highlight of the trip was the pope going out of his way to comfort families of victims of a ferry sinking in April that killed 304. But the pope wouldn't get involved in the families' demands for a parliamentary inquiry, and there was a general recognition that, as the newspaper Korea Times said in an editorial Monday, a single papal trip won't heal the country's divisions.

Francis shouldn't be regarded as "an almighty savior," the editorial said. "Needless to say, none but us can resolve our problems."


Klug, the AP's Seoul bureau chief, has covered the Koreas — from Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul — for nearly a decade.


On Twitter, follow Winfield at twitter.com/@nwinfield and Klug at twitter.com/@APklug