The pope urged North and South Korea to demolish the walls of mistrust and hate and to promote a culture of reconciliation and solidarity, in remarks made after meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The Communist regime in North Korea Thursday fired five short-range missiles into the sea in an apparent test firing, three of them just minutes before the pope's plane landed in Seoul.

President Park greeted Francis at Seongnam Air Base, south of Seoul, where the Alitalia Airbus A330 carrying the pontiff landed 15 minutes early after flying almost 9,000 km from Rome.

Park said she hoped the visit "would deliver warm comfort and serve to open an era of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula", to which the pope replied that he had come to Seoul with that "deep on his mind".

North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea after the Korean war (1950-1953) ended with an armistice, is under international sanctions over its missile testing and its nuclear programme.

The crowd which awaited the arrival of the pontiff at the air base included families of the victims of the Sewol ferry accident in which 300 people, mostly secondary school students, died last April.

The mother of one of the students burst into tears when the pope shook hands with her and expressed his condolences.

On Thursday, the Holy Father will celebrate a private mass in the Apostolic Nunciature of Seoul and will also meet with local bishops, the last event of the day's agenda.

His meeting with some 6,000 youngsters from 22 countries on the VI Asian Youth Day (AYD), one the highlights of his agenda, will take place Friday in Solmoe Holy Land in Naepo, around 120 km southwest of Seoul, the birthplace of the first South Korean priest and martyr Andrew Kim Tae-gon.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather in Seoul Saturday for the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs in the symbolic Gwangwhamun plaza, in the centre of the capital.

Almost 200,000 people have registered for the event, although up to one million are expected and some 30,000 police personnel will be in charge of maintaining security, police said.

Pope Francis will end his visit Monday, the first by a pontiff in 25 years after that of Juan Pablo II in 1989.South Korea, after the Philippines, is the Asian country with most Catholics. At 5.4 million, they represent more than 10 percent of the population, according to the archdiocese of Seoul.

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