Pope Francis is seeking to defuse rising nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula and to boost support for disarmament with a Vatican conference that will bring together 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners, United Nations and NATO officials, and representatives from a handful of countries with the bomb.
For some analysts, Francis’ address at the gathering Friday will provide a welcome break in the heated war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as Trump continues his first trip to Asia as president.
The Vatican hopes the conference will do more by further discrediting the Cold War-era idea that atomic weapons serve a purpose for deterrence and global security.
“For some people, it’s pie in the sky,” conference organizer and top papal adviser Monsignor Silvano Tomasi said. “But at this time, I think it’s very important to alert public opinion that the presence in the world of thousands of atomic bombs doesn’t guarantee the security of anyone.”
The conference is the first major international gathering since 122 countries approved a new U.N. treaty in July calling for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. However, none of the nuclear powers and no NATO members signed on. They argued the treaty’s lofty ideals were unrealistic given the rapid expansion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The treaty received a boost from the Nobel committee when it awarded the peace prize this year to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an advocacy group that was instrumental in getting the pact approved. ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, is one of the Nobel laureates who will address the Vatican conference.
“What’s so significant about this conference is that it draws attention to and underscores the treaty and the Nobel prize, and says, ‘This is serious stuff,’” said George Lopez, who served on an experts panel that advised the U.N. Security Council on North Korea sanctions.
Francis is “keeping the issue alive and adding a new dimension,” said Lopez, who is attending the conference as a member of a delegation from the University of Notre Dame.
The Holy See has consistently opposed nuclear weapons and supported nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, and history’s first Latin American pope has strongly backed that line. But Francis brings to the table arguments based on his other papal priorities: that atomic weapons are a threat to the environment, that the costs of developing them could be put to far better use, and that the world would be a far safer place if dialogue prevailed over confrontation.
Monsignor Tomasi said the Vatican hopes to send both Washington and Pyongyang a clear message through the conference: that the only way forward is dialogue, without “excessive aggression” in rhetoric.
Francis “keeps saying we need to build channels of communication and not walls,” Tomasi said in an interview. “If the conference that we are organizing succeeds in conveying this message, we have done our jobs.”
One outcome the Vatican is ruling out — at least publicly — is that the conference could lead to a mediation role of some kind. The Vatican under Francis has facilitated talks between the U.S. and Cuba and, more recently, between the Venezuelan government and opposition.
But it has denied any interest in mediating the Korean standoff and suggested that other experienced facilitators, such as Norway, could play that role.
The United States is set to be represented at the conference by its deputy ambassador to the Holy See. Ambassador Calista Gingrich hasn’t presented her credentials yet and can’t participate in official Vatican events. Russia is sending a top nuclear expert, and NATO’s deputy secretary general, Rose Gottemoeller, is scheduled to speak.
China and North Korea have been invited, but organizers said they do not know if the countries would send representatives. Neither has diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Beyond the current Korean standoff, there is a growing consensus — as evidenced by the 122 countries backing the U.N. treaty — that governments should no longer regard nuclear capability as the defining barometer of national, regional or global security, Tomasi said.
“Instead of ‘Let’s guarantee peace or security with the threat of mutual destruction,’ let’s try to construct in a positive way a sense of trust, solidarity, cooperation,” he said.