The Vatican on Friday reminded North Korea, whose recent firing of missiles has heightened tension in Asia, that Pope Francis is eager to visit the country to help the cause of peace if Pyongyang issues an official invitation.
The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, made the comments at an event marking South Korea's national day.
“Pope Francis nurtures a particular interest and affection for the Korean people. His desire to visit even areas in the North is vivid and well known, if he receives an official invitation from authorities,” the archbishop said.
Such a visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state, which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there. Little is known about how many of its citizens are Catholic or how they practise their faith.
Former South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who is Catholic, has urged the Pope to visit North Korea, saying a papal visit to Pyongyang would help build peace on the Korean peninsula.
When they met in 2018, Mr Moon relayed a verbal invitation to the Pope from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Archbishop Gallagher's comments were significant because they came three days after North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan, prompting joint South Korean and US missile drills.
North Korea also fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday in the direction of Japan, after the return of a US aircraft carrier to the region and a UN Security Council meeting in response to the North's recent launches.
Those launches were the sixth time in 12 days that North Korea has test-fired ballistic missiles, the latest display of its increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear bomb programmes.
Archbishop Gallagher also reminded his listeners of the Vatican's support for a total ban on nuclear weapons.
Pope Francis visited South Korea in 2014, and Vatican officials have said that any papal trip to North Korea would include stops in the South to underscore his support for a reunified peninsula.