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Pope Francis Greets Chinese President, North Korea Launches Missile As Catholic Pontiff Lands In South Korea

( [email protected] ) Aug 14, 2014 03:46 PM EDT

Pope Francis Visit Asia
Pope Francis arrives Thursday in Seoul, South Korea on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter-century. (AP)

North Korea fired three rockets into the water Thursday, less than an hour before Pope Francis landed in South Korea where he will spend the first five days of his Asian tour. The Pope plans to speak at the Asian Catholic youth festival in Daejeon, South Korea, and to encourage the North and the South to pursue reconciliation while he is there. Pope Francis is the first Pontiff in decades who has been permitted to fly over Chinese airspace, and he reportedly greeted the country's president on his way to Seoul.

Upon arriving in South Korea, the Pope met with President Park Geun-hye and two Catholic defectors from North Korea. He also took some time to console family members from the sunken South Korean Sewol Ferry tragedy. "The disaster is heart-breaking, I have not forgotten the victims," he told them.

Fox News reports that North Korea fired three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan just before the Pope landed in Seoul. The Vatican did not directly respond to the North's threats, other than to address the long-standing issue of hostility between the two Korean countries. The North's display of armory comes just days before the United States plans to conduct military drills in South Korea.

North and South Korea have been at war since 1953, and although an armistice has been in place for several decades, they continue to skirmish and to threaten one another. The Pope hopes to encourage the two countries to strive for forgiveness and for peace. "Korea's quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world ... May all of us dedicate these days to peace: to praying for it and deepening our resolve to achieve it," he said.

It is estimated that there are over five million Catholics in South Korea. Many youth are expected to flock to the Asian Catholic youth festival, which is similar to World Youth Day, with Pope Francis this week.  ABC News reports that South Korea had extended an invitation for North Korean Catholic youth to attend the festivities, but Pyongyang refused to allow them to come, citing their disdain for the upcoming military exercises that the United States plans to conduct in South Korea.

Because of tension between Beijing and the Vatican, many Chinese Catholics will be unable to attend the conference as well. Pope Francis sent a warm greeting Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew over Chinese airspace, however - "I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation," he said.