Korea Talks Begin as Kim Jong-un Crosses to South’s Side of DMZ
SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-un on Friday became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korean-controlled territory, starting a historic summit meeting with the South’s president that will test Mr. Kim’s willingness to bargain away his nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kim’s crossing of the line at the heart of the world’s most heavily armed border zone, a prospect that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, was broadcast live in South Korea, where a riveted nation sought to discern the intentions of the North’s 34-year-old leader.
For South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has placed himself at the center of diplomacy to end the nuclear standoff with the North, the meeting presents a formidable task: finding a middle ground between a cunning enemy to the North and an impulsive ally in the United States.
The historic encounter at the Peace House, a conference building on the South Korean side of the border village of Panmunjom, could set the tone for an even more critical meeting planned between Mr. Kim and President Trump.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kim emerged from a North Korean administrative building inside Panmunjom and walked toward the border line, where Mr. Moon was waiting. The two leaders smiled and shook hands across a concrete slab that marks the border bisecting Panmunjom.
Then, Mr. Kim stepped across the border.
After the two leaders posed for photos, they crossed briefly into the North’s territory at Mr. Kim’s suggestion, another highly symbolic moment. They then stepped back into South Korean territory, holding hands, and walked down a red carpet to inspect a South Korean military honor guard and enter the Peace House.
“I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying during the meeting, according to Mr. Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan. Mr. Moon suggested they hold more meetings, and Mr. Kim said he would visit South Korea’s presidential Blue House “if the president invites me.”
Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon at the welcoming ceremony. CreditPool photo by Korea Summit Press
While Mr. Moon’s meeting with Mr. Kim on Friday — their first face-to-face talk — is rich with symbolism, Mr. Kim is not expected to capitulate on Mr. Trump’s key demand: total and immediate nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Moon’s other challenge, with Mr. Trump, turns on how best to deal with North Korea and its leader — who is expected to meet with Mr. Trump in the next few months.
The South Korean president favors an “action for action” strategy in which the North takes steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and is rewarded for each move with economic benefits and security guarantees. South Korean officials said that the entire process could take about two years.
Mr. Trump’s national security team, by contrast, has insisted that North Korea must scrap its weapons programs before any relief from the sanctions that isolate the nation can be granted. And they say that “substantial dismantlement” should be completed much more quickly, perhaps in six months.
Mr. Moon sees himself less as a negotiator with Mr. Kim and more as a mediator shuttling between two men who believe that keeping others guessing gives them an edge: a volatile American president with no experience in nuclear negotiations, and a hotheaded young North Korean leader with no experience on a global stage.
“What we can do is to try to help the North and the United States reach an agreement, helping them narrow their differences and seeking and presenting practical ideas both sides can accept,” Mr. Moon said recently, adding that he may have only one shot to get it right. “This is an opportunity that will not come again.”
The challenge is stark. No nation that has openly tested a nuclear device has ever surrendered its arsenal, and North Korea has conducted six underground explosions, each more powerful than the last, and has test-fired missiles that can reach the mainland United States.
But Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have both already defied conventional wisdomabout what is possible. If they meet in June — most likely in Singapore, according to American and South Korean officials — it would be the first direct encounter between the leaders of the two nations, as well as a chance to test the argument that making progress with North Korea in the nuclear standoff requires starting at the top.
Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim, center, posed with members of the two delegations on Friday.CreditPool photo by Korea Summit Press
The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon is the third summit meeting between leaders of the two countries, but the first in which denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula tops the agenda.
“I hope we can have open-minded talks on issues of concern and produce good results, not the kind of results we saw in the past that were not implemented and made us start from scratch again,” Mr. Kim said as the talks began on Friday. For his part, Mr. Moon said he hoped that the two leaders could engage in “broad-minded” discussions and produce “a big gift” for those yearning for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Mr. Moon hopes to emerge from Friday’s summit meeting with a formal but vague denuclearization commitment from Mr. Kim and perhaps a path to negotiating a peace treaty or a plan to reduce military tensions. Some have suggested a pullback of troops from the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South is possible.
But Mr. Moon has acknowledged that there is a limit to what the two Koreas can agree on without American involvement. “Peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved by agreements between South and North Korea alone,” he said last month. “It has to have American endorsement.”
One measure of success will be whether Mr. Moon can persuade Mr. Kim to set a timetable for denuclearization in his talks with Mr. Trump.
“Confirming a willingness to denuclearize is not enough. What matters is an agreement on by when the North will denuclearize,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank.
Some who have tried and failed to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program worry that Mr. Trump, having threatened the North with nuclear annihilation, has now swung too far to the other side and may be too eager to make a deal. Having derided Mr. Kim previously as “Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump described the North Korean leader as “very honorable” this week.
“I find it impossible to believe that Kim is prepared to give up what his father and his grandfather bequeathed to him,” said Gary Samore, a veteran of negotiations with North Korea as the top arms control aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations, speaking at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Mr. Kim signing a guest book in Panmunjom. CreditPool photo by Korea Summit Press
But he added that Mr. Kim “may now calculate he has enough of a nuclear arsenal” — and so can afford to put more on the table than in the past.
One possibility that causes consternation in the region is that Mr. Trump will settle for dismantling North Korea’s small fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, eliminating its ability to strike the United States — but leaving South Korea and Japan vulnerable. “It would be the ‘America First’ way,” Mr. Samore said, referring to Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan.
If skepticism is rampant in Washington, the Moon administration is somewhat more optimistic. To South Korean policymakers, Mr. Kim’s recent decisions suggest that he is willing to trade his nuclear arsenal for economic growth, which the young leader may see as necessary to preserving his rule for decades. They also argue that Mr. Trump’s threats of military action have proved more effective at changing Mr. Kim’s calculations than anticipated.