Pope Francis is reportedly planning one of his most audacious trips yet – to North Korea.
It would be the first ever papal trip to the Hermit Kingdom. One of the themes of Francis’s papacy has been his eagerness to reach out to what he calls "the periphery" – relatively obscure countries with small or even non-existent Catholic communities.
Among the lesser-known nations he has visited are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paraguay and the Central African Republic.
The 84-year-old pope is recuperating this week from an operation on his colon, performed by doctors in Rome on Sunday. But his willingness to travel to far-flung destinations appears to be undiminished.
The Vatican announced this week that he will travel to Hungary and Slovakia in September and now comes word that he has his sights set on North Korea.
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, has previously passed on a 'verbal invitation' from Kim Jong-un to the Pope
The head of South Korea’s intelligence services is working on a possible visit by the Argentinian pontiff to North Korea, according to Fides, a Vatican news agency.
Park Jie-won is set to meet the Vatican’s nuncio or ambassador in South Korea, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, to discuss a papal visit to Pyongyang.
It is not the first time the prospect of Francis traveling to North Korea has been discussed. During an audience at the Vatican in 2018 with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, the Pope expressed his willingness to visit the North.
Mr Moon, who was on a tour of Europe, passed on a "verbal invitation" from Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
But plans for an apostolic visit fell through after talks between Kim and former US President Donald Trump broke down in Hanoi in 2019.
‘Initiate a new era of peace’
"Along with all the Korean faithful, we hope that, if it is God’s will, Pope Francis can visit North Korea to initiate a new era of peace," said Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen, the director of Fides news agency.
A visit by the pope could encourage "reconciliation, harmony and unity," he said. "It would be a moment of grace and blessing for the entire peninsula."
Monsignor Lazzaro You Heung-sik, the bishop of Daejon in central South Korea, said: "I’m convinced that a possible visit to Pyongyang could represent a turning point, which would allow us Koreans to dialogue and understand each other better, and perhaps even reach the reunification of the South and the North.
"In concrete terms, the Holy Father’s mediation could be a propitious opportunity to put an end to the conflict, the result of mutual distrust between the two parts of the peninsula which has lasted for too many decades."
The Pope has previously expressed sympathy with Korean families that have been separated for the last 70 years, ever since the peninsula was divided following the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
No pope has ever visited North Korea and there are no diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Pyongyang.
A Vatican spokesman would not be drawn on whether an apostolic trip to North Korea was being discussed, merely noting that the Pope was "currently hospitalised" and recovering from his operation.
Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un watch a basketball game in Pyongyang in 2014
One of the few foreigners to have struck up a rapport with Kim is Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star.
He has visited North Korea on several occasions and once led a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to the country’s reclusive leader.
"We ride horses, we sing karaoke, we go skiing… we do a lot of cool things together," he said in one interview. "For some reason he likes me, he trusts me."
Other Americans have suffered a brutal experience at the hands of the North Korean regime. Otto Warmbier, a US college student, was arrested and imprisoned in 2016 on a charge of subversion. He was accused of trying to take an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. After 17 months in captivity, he was released in a vegetative state and died soon afterwards.
Although North Korea remains difficult to fathom, experts believe a combination of the Covid pandemic and international sanctions has led to food shortages and a worsening economy.
Kim has admitted that there is a "tense" food situation, and in recent public appearances he appeared to have lost a considerable amount of weight.
Last month, an unusual clip was aired on North Korean state television in which an ordinary citizen in Pyongyang described Kim as looking "emaciated".