For the first time in the history of the divided peninsula, a North Korean leader stepped across the inter-Korean border, where he was greeted by a South Korean president. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was greeted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in as he crossed the MDL – the Military Demarcation Line, the actual border – that runs through the center of the truce village of Panmunjom, which itself stands in the center of the 4 kilometer-wide Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
A loud gasp was heard in the huge press center where some 3,000 reporters have gathered to cover the event, the third inter-Korean summit, as Kim appeared amid an entourage of bodyguards and besuited and uniformed officials on the northern side.
In his trademark black tunic and glasses, hair slicked back in his idiosyncratic style, Kim strode alone to the MDL – demarcated by a line of concrete in the gravel between the truce huts of “conference row’ in Panmunjom – where a beaming Moon, more conventionally attired in suit and blue tie, awaited him. The two leaders spoke privately for a few seconds, then hundreds of reporters applauded as Kim stepped across the concrete into what is – for him – enemy territory. The two leaders shook hands and posed for photographs facing north and south. Kim looked solemn, Moon cheerful. Then, holding hands, the two crossed and re-crossed the border.
Their small steps over the low concrete barrier were laden with symbolism. The frontier has been almost totally impermeable for ordinary Koreans since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. As a condition of the armistice, the DMZ was established across the 248-kilometer wide waist of the peninsula. The two were offered flowers by children from Daeseong Dong – the only South Korean village in the DMZ, only a few minute’s drive from Panmunjom – then marched along a red carpet between lines of South Korean troops in ceremonial attire from the Joseon Dynasty.
That dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 until Japanese colonization in 1910, was the last time the peninsula was a sovereign, unified state. The traditional folk song “Arirang” – a mournful tune about departing love – was played by the military band. Then Kim and Moon greeted officials of both delegations to the summit talks, before walking along yet more red carpets to “Peace House,” the three-story conference facility in the southern zone of Panmunjom, where the summit takes place.
A prominent member of the North’s delegation is Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jeong, whose presence in the South during the Olympics laid the groundwork for Friday’s summit. It is believed that she was her father’s original choice to lead North Korea after his death; he only replaced her with the tougher Kim Jong-un due to the hostile environment surrounding the peninsula at the time. Some believe she is the key architect of the détente moves now underway.
There was laughter in the press center when both North and South Korean reporters stood in front of TV cameras carrying a live feed from Peace House – where the two leaders posed in front of a painting of a Korean mountain-scape – to the world. A small pool of reporters is covering the summit from Panmunjom, while the rest are in KINTEX, a huge conference center in the dormitory town of Ilsan, north of Seoul but south of the DMZ. TV crews are stationed at various points in between.
Leaders hope for progress, no repeat of past
Kim signed the visitors’ book in Peace House while Moon stood by the desk, before the summit began. A brief interchange between the two leaders at the conference table was filmed. Kim told Moon that he had had “a lot of thoughts as we walked 200 meters.” “I hope to write a new chapter between us,” he continued. “This is a starting point with us.” Asking for “candid discussions,” he added: “I hope we will not go back to square one, and I hope non-implementation will not happen again.”
That was almost certainly a reference to the agreements his father, Kim Jong-il, struck with liberal South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in, respectively, 2000 and 2007. Various agreements, notably on inter-Korean tourism and commercial projects, were overturned after Seoul shifted to the conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008, and his successor Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017.
“Spring is at its peak on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon responded. “The whole world is paying attention.” Saying “there is a huge burden on our shoulders,” Moon noted that “for the first time in our history, you crossed the demarcation line.” He congratulated Kim on his “bold and courageous decision” to attend the summit, and suggested that the two leaders “give a great gift to the whole humankind.”
Kim, known for both a sense of humor and a healthy appetite, referred to their upcoming dinner, hoping that Moon would “… enjoy delicacies of Pyongyang that have travelled from afar,” – a reference to the cold noodles to be served at the joint dinner on Friday evening.
The delegations were scheduled to talk all morning, then break for lunch. In the afternoon, there will be a joint tree planting on the MDL, before the summit continues. Dinner, in the south, will be served at 6:30pm. A joint statement is expected in late afternoon or evening. Key agenda items are North Korean denuclearization; a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War; a “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula; and inter-Korean cooperation and reconciliation.
While no issues are expected to be resolved on Friday, there are expectations that processes for each can be established. There are also hopes that a personal chemistry will develop between Kim and Moon. Both are public-friendly politicians, frequently photographed with crowds.
Today’s summit will lay the key groundwork for the upcoming – and arguably more critical – summit to take place in May or early June, at a location to be decided, between Kim and US President Donald Trump. That summit will be the first between a North Korean and a US leader.
The summit marks the culmination of a chain of events that has astonished the world and surprised Korean watchers with its speed of development. Following Kim’s conciliatory New Year’s Day speech and broadcast, inter-Korean interactions, largely severed amid tensions in 2016, have moved at breakneck pace. Moon made inter-Korean engagement an electoral platform in 2017 and the sudden lurch in the strategic-diplomatic scenario on the peninsula – from a high-tension war of words last year to the current air of goodwill – is a huge win for him.
There is significant national excitement. Central Seoul is draped with banners reading “Peace, a new start” – the summit slogan. TV weather reports led with conditions at Panmunjom. The Blue House website has been counting down the days – D-2, D-1, etc. Although it will be Kim and Moon’s first summit, it is the third inter-Korean summit – and some local media are calling it “historic.”
A better-than-ever opportunity
Conditions look more positive now than the two previous summits. The first, between late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and the late liberal South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, took place in 2000. However, the promise of that meeting was undercut by a policy chasm between Seoul and the George W Bush administration.
The second took place in 2007, between Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-jung’s liberal successor, Roh Moo-hyun. While various measures were agreed, the meeting took place at the end of Roh’s presidency and the many agreements were not followed up by Roh’s conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak.
This time, however, timing and synchronicity look positive. Moon and Trump appear to be on the same policy page; both are early in their terms. “Neither are lame ducks, they are powerful enough in their respective countries and they seem to have enough in common on this topic,” said Daniel Tudor, co-author of “North Korea Confidential.” “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make something happen.”
Suspicions over Kim’s motives
While Kim’s ongoing “charm offensive” has delighted many, particularly in South Korea, experts warn that North Korea remains one of the world’s most tyrannical dictatorships, and question Kim’s sincerity on complete denuclearization.
Some believe that Kim, alarmed by the pugnacious Trump, is playing to wait out the presidency, and also needs sanctions relief: experts at Seoul’s Sejong Institute believe Pyongyang’s forex reserves will be exhausted at the end of the year.
“They believe that if they give up nuclear weapons, regime collapse is inevitable and they will all be killed … and North Koreans are by no means suicidal,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kukmin University, referencing the end of Libya’s Gaddafi regime, which gave up nuclear arms before being bloodily overthrown. But he added “they will make serious concessions, because they are seriously terrified” of Trumpian Washington.
“I find it impossible to believe he is prepared to give up what his father and grandfather bequeathed to him,” added Gary Samore of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, of Kim’s strategic arms programs. “But it is conceivable he will accept real limits, to lift sanctions and get economic aid.”
Samore, who was speaking at the Asan Plenum in Seoul on Wednesday, added that Kim may have amassed enough of an arsenal to guarantee his security. If Kim puts previously undeclared nuclear facilities on the negotiating table, then he will “pass the laugh test … then we can have a discussion,” Samore opined. Others are more optimistic about a possible outcome to the long-running crisis that was ignited by North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
“We have past-dependent thinking framework,” said Handong University’s Kim Joon-hyung, who advises President Moon on North Korea and who was also speaking at the Asan Plenum. “I think [Kim] is a different kind of leader” who is acting “out of confidence as well as fear.”