SEOUL, South Korea - Pope Francis called Thursday for peace and unity on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid "fruitless" criticisms and shows of force, offering a message of reconciliation at the start of a five-day visit to South Korea that received a stark response from the North.
North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast about an hour before Francis landed in Seoul, and two others a short while later. North Korea has conducted several such tests this year, and it also has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South.
Neither Francis nor South Korean President Park Geun-hye referred to the firings in their speeches at Seoul's presidential palace, and the Vatican spokesman sought to downplay the incident altogether, saying he wasn't even sure the pope had been told.
Pope Francis, left, prays as he arrives to attend a meeting with the bishops of Korea at the headquarters of the Korean Episcopal Conference in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. Pope Francis called Thursday for renewed efforts to forge peace on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid 'fruitless' criticisms and shows of force, opening a five-day visit to South Korea with a message of reconciliation as Seoul's rival, North Korea, fired several projectiles into the sea.
In the first speech of his first trip to Asia, Francis told Park, government officials and regional diplomats that peace required justice - and that justice in turn requires forgiveness, cooperation and mutual respect. He said diplomacy must be encouraged so that listening and dialogue replace "mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force."
"We cannot become discouraged in our pursuit of these goals which are for the good not only of the Korean people but of the entire region and the whole world," he said, in the first English-language speech of his pontificate. Usually Francis speaks in Italian or his native Spanish, but the Vatican said he would deliver at least four speeches in English on the trip to accommodate his Asian audiences.
North Korea's apparent test firing was conducted from Wonsan on its east coast, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules. It wasn't immediately clear what the projectiles were.
North Korea has expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it says are invasion preparations. A new round of drills, which Seoul and Washington call routine and defensive, is expected to start in coming days.
As he arrived at an airport just south of Seoul on the first papal visit in a quarter century, the pope shook hands with four relatives of victims of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith. Francis on Saturday will beatify 124 Korean martyrs who founded the church on the peninsula in the 18th century, hoping to give South Korea's vibrant and growing church new models for holiness and evangelization.
Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope on the tarmac. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers, and he bowed in return. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made Kia car that turned heads in the status-conscious capital, where many would consider it too humble for someone of the pope's stature.