NORTH KOREA fired three short-range rockets off its east coast yesterday, shortly before Pope Francis arrived in the South Korean capital on his first visit to Asia, according to the defence ministry in Seoul.
Rockets were fired from the port city of Wonsan and travelled 135 miles before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula, a South Korean official said.
The last rocket was fired 35 minutes before the Pope was due to arrive at an air base at the start of his five-day visit.
The launches came ahead of American-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday. Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive but North Korea regularly protests against the drills, which it sees as a rehearsal for war.
North Korea last fired short-range rockets in late July but has since said repeatedly that the launches are specifically designed as counter measures against the drills.
“Given that the US and the puppet forces of South Korea continue staging nuclear war exercises against us in particular, we will take countermeasures for self-defence which will include missile launches, nuclear tests and all other programmes,” a statement carried by North Korean state media warned.
The secretive Communist regime in Pyongyang, led by Kim Jong-un, is under heavy United Nations and United States sanctions related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Short-range rockets do not defy the ban but Pyongyang has in recent months changed its propaganda style to include photographs of Mr Kim personally supervising the launches.
North Korea declined an invitation to send a delegation to meet the Pope in Seoul. The Catholic leader has made the theme of his five-day trip peace and reconciliation in the divided Korean peninsula.
North Korea has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South.
The Pope plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.
After he landed, the Pope shook hands with four relatives of victims of the MV Sewol ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people and also met two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith.
Some elderly Catholics wept, bowing deeply as they greeted the Pope. A boy and girl in Korean dress presented him with flowers. He was then driven to Seoul, where he and the president, Park Geun-hye, were to hold a joint press call and make speeches.
As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea early yesterday, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese president Xi Jinping.
It was a rare opportunity for an exchange as the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations. It furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and Catholics who worship outside the state-recognised church.
Vatican protocol calls for the Pope to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but yesterday’s telegram was unprecedented because the last time a Pope wanted to fly over China – John Paul II in 1989 – Beijing refused. Vatican officials said the lines of communication were open with Communist Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them – Rome’s insistence on naming bishops – remains.