North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday morning crossed the line that has divided the Korean Peninsula for 65 years, walking into South Korea for a historic summit with President Moon Jae-in that will lay the groundwork for a meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump.
It was the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953 that a North Korean leader has come to South Korea and it was broadcast live across the country, with commuters stopping in train stations and teachers stopping classes so their students could watch the moment.
Kim, wearing his trademark black Mao suit, walked down the steps of the Panmungak building on the northern side of the line that divides the peninsula, and up to the concrete curb that marks the exact line.
Moon was waiting for him there, his hand outstretched. They talked, smiling, for several minutes before Moon invited Kim across to the southern side. Kim accepted but, after posing for photos, invited Moon to cross back into the North with him.
Moon went and the two Korean leaders stood hand in hand in what is technically North Korea – something that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.
“This was a very moving moment for all of us,” said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the pro-engagement Sejong Institute outside Seoul.
“The two Korean leaders, crossing the military demarcation line and making these talks happen, are sending a message to the world that they are initiating peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
After crossing the line, Kim entered the Peace House building on the southern side of the border and signed a welcome book with the message: “New history from now on, [we are] at the start of a historic new peace era.”
Two North Korean security guards cleaned the chair, guest book and pen with sanitizer before Kim sat down to write the message.
Once inside the meeting room, a relaxed and jovial Kim joked about bringing cold noodles from Pyongyang for Friday night’s dinner banquet and, in front of the media, gave conciliatory opening remarks.
“Let’s hold hands and walk toward the future,” the 34-year-old North Korean leader said.
Moon responded in kind.
“We have a whole day to us, so let’s talk about the things we haven’t been able to talk about for the last 10 years,” the South Korean president said. “I want to once again show my respect for Leader Kim Jong Un’s courageous decision that made today possible.”
The warm welcome, complete with a red carpet and a military honor guard in traditional costume, kicked off a day of talks that will cover inter-Korean relations and the setting up of a peace regime to bring about a formal end to the Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Those subjects have largely been coordinated in advance, but the real wild card is denuclearization.
Moon has said that Kim is willing to discuss denuclearization, and without the condition of American troops being withdrawn from South Korea.
Successive U.S. administrations have insisted that Pyongyang give up its nuclear program and allow outside inspectors to verify the progress. The Kim regime has long said that any process must be mutual and accompanied by the withdrawal of the U.S. military from the southern half of the peninsula.
In an announcement Saturday that North Korea would not conduct any more nuclear or missile tests, Kim made no mention of giving up his program. He simply signaled that he would suspend it.
“The devil will be in the details,” said Laura Rosenberger, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who worked on North Korea policy in the Obama White House.
She cited the “Leap Day deal” debacle in 2012, when North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile tests, only to launch what it said was a satellite about six weeks later.
“I worry about that kind of thing happening again,” she said.
The outcome of these talks will be of huge interest to the United States, which was on the receiving end of Kim’s nuclear threats last year.
President Trump has tweeted that “big progress” is being made toward denuclearization and that he is looking forward to meeting Kim. That meeting has not been scheduled but is likely to happen in late May or early June. The location has not been decided.
But analysts are much more skeptical about securing the kind of agreement that would lead Kim to give up his nuclear weapons program.
“Expectations for these summits are greatly inflated, which is the last thing you want going in,” said Victor Cha, chairman of the Korea department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and one of the negotiators of the 2005 denuclearization deal.
That the summit is happening at all represents an astounding turn of events after a 2017 that was marked by major advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. This sparked a war of words between Kim and Trump that many feared might turn into actual military action.
But President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of tough sanctions and tougher words, combined with Kim’s heightened nuclear-powered swagger, has created an environment for talks in which the United States and North Korea each think they have the upper hand.
Moon, who took office only a year ago pledging to engage with North Korea, recognized the opportunity for diplomacy and set the process that led to Friday’s summit in motion at the Olympics that South Korea hosted in February.
The summit and the change of mood it has brought about in South Korea, where there were palpable fears of military action at the end of last year, has won wide approval in South Korea.
Even the conservative newspapers, usually harsh critics of Moon’s progressive government, have been cautiously supportive of the effort to embark down a diplomatic path.
The JoongAng Ilbo, one the biggest newspapers, said that the outcome of Friday’s summit would have wide-reaching implications.
“Kim must realize this is the last chance for survival,” the paper wrote in an editorial Friday. “If Kim tries to attach unrealistic conditions as his predecessors did, he cannot gain anything. That will only help the hawks in Washington bay for stronger action.”
This is only the third inter-Korean summit and is the first that South Korea has hosted.
Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet then-leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. However, the shine came off when it emerged that the South had paid the North $500 million to participate.
Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung’s successor, followed suit by traveling to Pyongyang in 2007 and meeting Kim Jong Il. At the time, Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and head of the summit preparation committee.