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North Korea fires missiles as Pope Francis visits South Korea

PYONGYANG: Pope Francis has called for peace in the war-ridden Korean peninsula during a visit to the South, as the North Korea fired five missiles to coincide with his arrival. Three rockets were fired as the Pope’s plane approached Seoul, and there were reports of a further three, shortly after he touched down.

All of the short-range missiles landed in the sea off North Korea’s east coast, hundreds of miles away from the Pontiff's plane. In his first speech after landing, the Pope called for renewed efforts to forge peace in the war-divided Korean Peninsula.

He urged both sides to avoid ‘fruitless’ criticisms and shows of force and told South Korean President Park Geun-hye that peace required forgiveness and mutual respect. The North has tested an unprecedented number of rockets and missiles this year, including many in recent weeks.

It says the launches are in retaliation for US-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday. Pyongyang often stages such tests when rival South Korea is in the global spotlight - as is the case with the papal visit - in what is seen as a means of grabbing attention.

The Argentine pope will spend five days in South Korea, meeting some of the country's five million Catholics on the first trip by a pontiff to Asia since 1999. But much of the attention will be on the Vatican's relations with China. It was the first time a pope had been allowed to fly over China on Asian tours.

His predecessor, John Paul II, had to avoid Chinese airspace because of the fraught relations between Beijing and the Vatican. Before touching down in Seoul, Pope Francis sent an unprecedented message of goodwill to China.

“Upon entering Chinese air space, 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 in a radio message to President Xi Jinping.

The Vatican has had no formal relations with China since shortly after the Communist Party took power in 1949. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities.

The first is the ‘official’ Church known as the ‘Patriotic Association’ answerable to the Party; the second an underground Church that swears allegiance only to the Pope in Rome.

As the Pope touched down in Seoul, there were reports that some Chinese had been barred from travelling to a youth celebration in South Korea. About half of more than 100 Chinese who had planned to attend the Asian Youth Day event during the papal visit were unable to attend.