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Warm welcome: North Korea fires rockets as Pope Francis arrives in the South

South Korea had asked for Catholics from North Korea to come to an event with the Pope, but the North declined.

Image: Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo

NORTH KOREA HAS fired five short-range rockets into the sea off its east coast, just as Pope Francis arrived in Seoul for a five-day visit.

The launches began at 9.30 am (00.30 GMT) at a site near the North’s eastern port of Wonsan, with the rockets fired into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) at a maximum range of 220 kilometres, a defence ministry spokesman said.

Three were fired in the morning and two in the afternoon, he said.

“They are presumed to have been fired from a 300-millimetre multiple rocket launcher,” he said, adding that the military had stepped up vigilance along the heavily fortified border.

The pope is expected to send a message of peace to Pyongyang when he conducts a special inter-Korean “reconciliation” mass in Seoul next week on the last day of his visit.

South Korea Pope Pope Francis arrives in Seoul earlier today Source: Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo

Church officials in the South had sent several requests to Pyongyang to send a group of Catholics to attend the event, but the North declined the offer, citing its anger at upcoming South Korea-US military drills.

The Catholic Church, like any other religion, is only allowed to operate in North Korea under extremely tight restrictions, and within the confines of the state-controlled Korean Catholics Association.

It has no hierarchical links with the Vatican and there are no known Catholic priests or nuns.

The United States denounced the launches, while saying it was still studying whether they violated UN Security Council resolutions.

South Korea Pope A journalist takes a selfie with Pope Francis aboard the papal flight to Seoul. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“We continue to call on North Korea to refrain from undertaking such provocative actions,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.

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Harf also voiced concern that North Korea did not give notice to alert passing ships and aircraft.

Thursday’s launches came hours after North Korea warned that if South Korea failed to cancel an upcoming military drill with the United States it would push the two sides “to the brink of war”.

South Korea Pope Francis Books about Pope Francis at a bookstore in Seoul. Source: Lee Jin-man/AP Photo

North Korea has carried out an extended series of missile tests into the East Sea in recent months, despite UN resolutions barring it from any launches using ballistic missile technology.

The North has defended the tests as a legitimate exercise in self-defence and a response to the South-US war manoeuvres.

- © AFP, 2014

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