(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un called for “a new history of peace and prosperity” after becoming the first North Korean leader to enter South Korea to hold talks over his nuclear weapons program.
At 9:30 a.m. local time, a smiling Kim -- dressed in a black Mao suit -- was greeted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom village before stepping across a concrete slab marking the border. In what appeared to be a spontaneous gesture, Moon accepted Kim’s invitation to step together onto the northern side of the dividing line before returning to the south.
The symbolism-laden meeting -- the third between leaders of the nations since the Korean War and the first since 2007 -- will go a long way in determining whether Kim can eventually strike a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump. The event marked Kim’s first live, unfiltered appearance on world television: South Koreans gathered rapt around screens to watch Moon lead him past a military honor guard while a band played “Arirang,” a traditional song that evokes Korean identity.
"I felt a flood of emotion as I walked the 200 meters here,” Kim told Moon as talks began. “I came here with a mindset that we will fire a flare at the starting point of a new history for peace and prosperity.”
“Let’s get everything on our mind out here and make good results,” Kim said.
Moon commended Kim for his “decisiveness” in agreeing to the meeting.
“The entire world is watching the spring of the Korean Peninsula -- all eyes and ears are here at Panmunjom,” Moon said.“I feel burden on our shoulders.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Kim’s regime is on the cusp of developing a missile capable of striking any U.S. city with one of his estimated 60 nuclear bombs. Trump has tightened economic sanctions against Kim’s regime and warned of military action if he continues to threaten the U.S.
“We are hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in statement.
Reports ahead of the summit said the leaders may sign a peace declaration to replace the 1953 armistice that has left the two countries still technically at war, as well as a phased withdrawal of troops and weapons from both sides of the demilitarized zone. They could also signal a mechanism for future talks on nuclear inspections and sanctions relief, two areas that have prompted previous negotiations to collapse.
As a precursor to the summit, Kim promised last week to extend his freeze on missile and atomic tests, as well as dismantle a nuclear test site believed to have been badly damaged by recent explosions. Still, few expect Kim to completely give up his nuclear weapons, which are so central to the regime’s identity that North Korea’s status as a “nuclear state” is enshrined in its constitution.
Trump applauded the pledge to halt nuclear tests as “big progress,” going as far this week as calling Kim “very honorable.” That was a far cry from last year, when he nicknamed Kim “Rocket Man” and threatened to destroy the country.
“This summit is solely focused on denuclearization and policies to achieve lasting peace,” Im Jong-seok, Moon’s chief of staff and head of summit preparations, told reporters Thursday. “It’s difficult to predict” what any agreement would look like, he said.
Kim and Moon will have plenty of photo opportunities throughout the day: Shaking hands, signing a guestbook, planting a tree. The leaders also plan to sign agreements before a banquet, and may even hold a joint press appearance.
“It was most noteworthy that Kim pulled Moon across the border into the north,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. “This shows that he’s determined to show his influence on the peninsula and will be on the offensive even though he is in the south.”
Giving up nuclear weapons is more than just a tactical choice for Kim: It would signal a fundamental change in how one of the world’s longest ruling dynasties maintains power.
Even so, any progress on dismantling the program would likely be slow and fraught, and involve visits by international inspectors. Prior efforts involving Kim’s late father when he was leader collapsed in acrimony, with North Korea blaming the U.S. for failure to adhere to the agreements.
“It’s off to a good start, but there must be a concrete commitment by Kim on denuclearization,” said Youngshik Bong, a researcher at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Otherwise it will end up as a fancy show.”
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