In a historic summit more striking for its extraordinary images than its substance, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together yesterday across the cracked concrete marking the Koreas’ border.
The sight, inconceivable just months ago, may not erase their failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions, but it allowed the leaders to step forward toward the possibility of a cooperative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread scepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.
On the nuclear issue, the leaders merely repeated a previous vow to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, kicking one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in coming weeks.
Still, the summit produced the spectacle of two men from nations with a deep and bitter history of acrimony grinning from ear-to-ear after Kim walked over the border to greet Moon, becoming the first leader of his nation to set foot on southern soil since the Korean War. Both leaders then briefly stepped together into the North and back to the South.
The summit marks a surreal, whiplash swing in relations for the countries, from nuclear threats and missile tests to intimations of peace and cooperation.
Perhaps the change is best illustrated by geography: Kim and Moon’s historic handshake and a later 30-minute conversation at a footbridge on the border occurred within walking distance of the spot where a North Korean soldier fled south in a hail of gunfire last year, and where North Korean soldiers axe-murdered two US soldiers in 1976.
‘LINKED BY BLOOD’
Standing at a podium next to Moon after the talks ended, Kim faced a wall of cameras beaming his image live to the world and declared that the Koreas are “linked by blood as a family and compatriots who cannot live separately.” The leaders also vowed to achieve “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearisation,” something they’ve said before.
The latest declaration between the Koreas, Kim said, should not repeat the “unfortunate history of past inter-Korean agreements that only reached the starting line” before becoming derailed.
What happened Friday should be seen in the context of the last year — when the United States, its ally South Korea and North Korea threatened and raged as the North unleashed a torrent of weapons tests — but also in light of the long, destructive history of the rival Koreas, who fought one of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts and even today occupy a divided peninsula that’s still technically in a state of war.
Trump tweeted later Friday, “KOREAN WAR TO END!” and said the United States “should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” Both Koreas agreed to jointly push for talks this year with the United States and also potentially China to officially end the Korean War, which stopped with an armistice that never ended the war.
Many will be judging the summit based on the weak nuclear language. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests last year likely put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. The North, which has spent decades doggedly building its bombs despite crippling sanctions and near-constant international opprobrium, claims it has already risen to that level.
South Korean conservative politicians criticised the joint statement as letting North Korea off the hook by failing to secure a clear commitment on nuclear disarmament. Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hong Joon-pyo denounced the summit as a “show camouflaged as peace.”
But the Koreas made inroads on a raft of other points of friction between them. Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, sometime in the autumn, and both leaders said they’d meet on a regular basis and exchange calls via a recently established hotline.
They agreed to settle their disagreement over their western maritime border by designating it as a peace area and securing fishing activities for both countries. They said they’d open a permanent communication office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and resume temporary reunions of relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
“I feel like I’m firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of [the two Koreas] writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity,” Kim told Moon as they sat at a table, which had been built so that exactly 2018 millimeters separated them, to begin their closed-door talks. Moon responded that there were high expectations that they produce an agreement that will be a “big gift to the entire Korean nation and every peace-loving person in the world.”
Kim acknowledged the widespread scepticism over their summit. “We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfill them. ... there are sceptical views on whether the meeting today will yield meaningful results,” Kim said. “If we maintain a firm will and proceed forward hand-in-hand, it will be impossible at least for things to get worse than they are now.”
Kim, during their talks, joked that he would make sure not to interrupt Moon’s sleep anymore, a reference to the North’s drumbeat of earlymorning missile tests last year, according to Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan. Kim also referred to a South Korean island that North Korea attacked with artillery in 2010, killing four, saying the residents of Yeonpyeong Island who have been living in fear of North Korean artillery have high hopes the summit will help heal past scars. Kim said he’d visit Seoul’s presidential Blue House if invited.
The historic greeting of the two leaders, which may be the images most remembered from the summit, was planned to the last detail, though the multiple border crossings may have been impromptu. As thousands of journalists, who were kept in a huge conference centre well away from the summit, except for a small group of tightly controlled pool reporters at the border, waited and watched, Moon stood near the Koreas’ dividing line, moving forward the moment he glimpsed Kim, dressed in dark, Mao-style suit, appearing in front of a building on the northern side.
They smiled broadly and shook hands with the border line between them. Moon then invited Kim to cross into the South, and, after Kim did so, Moon said, “You have crossed into the South, but when do I get to go across?” Kim replied, “Why don’t we go across now?” and then grasped Moon’s hand and led him into the North and then back into the South.
Moon then led Kim along a blindingly red carpet into South Korean territory, where two fifth-grade students from the Daesongdong Elementary School, the only South Korean school within the DMZ, greeted the leaders and gave Kim flowers. An honour guard stood at attention for inspection, a military band playing traditional Korean folk songs beloved by both Koreas. They then took a photo inside the Peace House, where the summit took place, in front of a painting of South Korea’s Bukhan Mountain, which towers over the South Korean Blue House presidential mansion and where dozens of North Korean commandos trying to assassinate the then-dictator in Seoul were killed in 1968. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, was by Kim’s side throughout the ceremony, handing him a pen to sign a guestbook, taking the children’s flowers from his hand and scribbling notes at the start of the talks with Moon.
Expectations were generally low on the nuclear issue, given that past so-called breakthroughs on North Korea’s weapons have collapsed amid acrimonious charges of cheating and bad faith. Sceptics 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, however, say the only way to get a deal is to do what the Koreas tried yesterday: sit down and see what’s possible.
Kim and Moon: the heir born to rule and the escapee’s son
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in have followed paths to power as radically different as their two countries, but yesterday they came together at a summit in the Demilitarised Zone.
Moon’s parents were both born in a small village in Hungnam, in what is now North Korea, and his father Moon Yong-hyung graduated from an elite high school before becoming a local government agricultural official.
As the Korean War raged in late 1950 and Kim Il-sung’s forces besieged the city they were among 100,000 civilians who fled the North in the Hungnam Evacuation, one of the US military’s biggest-ever civilian rescues.
Moon’s mother – whose sister was left behind – gave birth to the future president in a refugee camp in Geoje, presentday South Korea.
The South Korean leader’s well-educated but taciturn father had interest in social issues and read a literary magazine popular among intelligentsia, but had little talent in business, racking up huge debts and becoming depressed.
The family relied on food handouts from Catholic nuns – Moon still describes himself as a Catholic – and his mother became the main breadwinner, running small businesses including peddling clothes on the street, while a young Moon often helped her pulling a cart full of coal briquettes.
The father passed away aged 58 in 1978. “He suffered all his life as a refugee and later in poverty. He had so many expectations for me but died without seeing my success,” Moon later wrote.
But he inherited his father’s academic abilities and social consciousness, becoming a lawyer and a human rights activist during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, before he was tapped by liberal president Roh Moo-hyun as a key aide in 2003.
The following year he accompanied his mother Kang Han-ok for a tearful reunion with her sister at Mount Kumgang, and as the president’s chief-of-staff he attended the last inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2007.
He lost the 2012 presidential election to Park’s daughter Park Geun-hye, before she was impeached last year and he won the vote to succeed her. Pyongyang proclaims that Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il was born at a secret guerrilla camp on Mount Paektu, a sacred site to Koreans – and in the next-door province to Hungnam.
Independent experts and Soviet records say he actually came into the world in a Siberian village where his own father Kim Il-sung was in exile. Much of Kim Jong-un’s early history is similarly surrounded in mystery – so much so that even his precise date of birth is unclear. But it’s clear he has lived a life of luxury. Born to his father’s third wife, late Japan-born ethnic Korean dancer Ko Yong-hui, Kim was sent to school in Switzerland, where he was looked after by his maternal aunt and her husband.
School staff and friends, who were reportedly unaware of his background, remembered him as a shy boy who liked skiing, Jean-Claude Van Damme and basketball.
Now in his mid-30s, he is said to have known that he would become North Korea’s leader from his eighth birthday, when he received a general’s uniform and the country’s military top brass bowed to him.
Kim only entered the public eye in 2008 when his father suffered a stroke and plans for the nation’s second dynastic succession were ramped up.
When he inherited power in 2011 he was considered untested, vulnerable and likely to be manipulated by senior figures. But he swiftly established his authority, having his influential uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek executed for treason two years later. He is also widely believed to be behind the dramatic assassination of his exiled half-brother Kim Jong-nam – with a banned nerve agent – in Malaysia last year. Kim has adopted the hairstyle, dress, mannerisms and even the handwriting of his grandfather, and has overseen rapid progress in the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile technology.
But he remains an unknown quantity on the international stage. Until his surprise trip to key ally Beijing last month to pay his respects to President Xi Jinping – his first overseas journey since assuming the leadership – the most prominent foreigner he had met was his basketball idol Dennis Rodman.