GOYANG, Korea, Republic Of — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set off Friday from his stronghold in the capital of Pyongyang for the border with South Korea, which he’ll walk across for historic face-to-face talks with his rival, South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Their discussions will focus overwhelmingly on whether the North can be persuaded to give up its nuclear bombs.
The leaders, who seemed on the verge of war months ago, will take a pleasant walk, plant a commemorative tree, inspect an honour guard and belly-up to a lavish banquet.
What’s less clear is whether they can make any progress in closed-door talks on the nuclear issue, which has bedeviled U.S. and South Korean officials for decades. North Korea last year unleashed a torrent of weapons tests that many experts believe put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. North Korea claims it has already risen to that level.
Kim’s news agency said that the leader would “open-heartedly” discuss with Moon “all the issues arising in improving inter-Korean relations and achieving peace, prosperity and reunification of the Korean peninsula” in a “historic” summit.
It’s the first time one of the ruling Kim leaders has crossed over to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone since the Korean War ended in 1953.
Moon later departed the Blue House presidential mansion, smiling as he greeted a crowd of hundreds gathered to wish him well, for the 52 kilometres (30 miles) drive to the border.
Nuclear weapons will top the agenda, and Friday’s summit will be the clearest sign yet of whether it’s possible to peacefully negotiate those weapons away from a country that has spent decades doggedly building its bombs despite crippling sanctions and near-constant international opprobrium.
Expectations are generally low, given that past so-called breakthroughs on North Korea’s weapons have collapsed amid acrimonious charges of cheating and bad faith. Skeptics of engagement have long said that the North often turns to interminable rounds of diplomacy meant to ease the pain of sanctions — giving it time to perfect its weapons and win aid for unfulfilled nuclear promises.
Advocates of engagement say the only way to get a deal is to do what the Koreas will try Friday: Sit down and see what’s possible.
Moon, a liberal whose election last year ended a decade of conservative rule in Seoul, will be looking to make some headway on the North’s nuclear program in advance of a planned summit in several weeks between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim, the third member of his family to rule his nation with absolute power, is eager, both in this meeting and in the Trump talks, to talk about the nearly 30,000 heavily armed U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the lack of a formal peace treaty ending the Korea War — two factors, the North says, that make nuclear weapons necessary.
North Korea may also be looking to use whatever happens in the talks with Moon to set up the Trump summit, which it may see as a way to legitimize its declared status as a nuclear power.
One possible outcome Friday, aside from a rise in general goodwill between the countries, could be a proposal for a North Korean freeze of its weapons ahead of later denuclearization.
Seoul and Washington will be pushing for any freeze to be accompanied by rigorous and unfettered outside inspections of the North’s nuclear facilities, since past deals have crumbled because of North Korea’s unwillingness to open up to snooping foreigners.
South Korea, in announcing Thursday some details of the leaders’ meeting, acknowledged that the most difficult sticking point between the Koreas has been North Korea’s level of denuclearization commitment. Kim has reportedly said that he wouldn’t need nuclear weapons if his government’s security could be guaranteed and external threats were removed.
Whatever the Koreas announce Friday, the spectacle of Kim being feted on South Korean soil will be something to behold.
Kim and Moon will be enjoying each other’s company in the jointly controlled village of Panmunjom near the spot where a defecting North Korean soldier recently fled south in a hail of bullets fired by his former comrades.