North and South Korean leaders gear up for landmark summit

Symbolic walk across demilitarised zone and tree-planting will underpin historical talks

North Korean soldiers stand guard before the military demarcation line on the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas. Photograph: Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP/Getty

North Korean soldiers stand guard before the military demarcation line on the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas. Photograph: Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP/Getty

 

Kim Jong-un will walk across the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas on Friday to join Moon Jae-in for groundbreaking talks, becoming the first North Korean leader to have stepped on South Korean soil since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The two Korean leaders will meet at 9.30am local time (1.30am Irish time) at Panmunjom, a military base and truce village on the southern side of the DMZ dividing line.

The talks are the first top-level diplomatic outreach since the North Korean nuclear crisis began and will deal with issues including denuclearisation, establishing permanent peace on the peninsula and improving inter-Korean relations.

Hopes are running high the talks will lead to peace and stability in the region after months of tension over the North’s nuclear programme, although sceptics point out that North Korea has reneged on every denuclearisation agreement it has signed in the past quarter-century.

North Korea’s success in creating a nuclear weapon has given it a “powerful treasured sword” to combat what it sees as the threat of the US. Its nuclear programme has earned the state international pariah status and led to damaging international sanctions.

It will be just the third inter-Korean summit since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce but without a peace treaty. The two previous summits, in 2000 and 2007, were both held in the North’s capital, Pyongyang.

Denuclearisation progress

While denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula will be part of the main agenda, the talks could lay the groundwork for an expected meeting between Mr Kim and the US president Donald Trump in May or early June.

“Without progress on denuclearisation, it would not be realistic to make headway in efforts on establishing peace,” a senior government official told reporters.

In the run-up to the talks, North Korea has made conciliatory gestures including stopping intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear tests while shutting down the symbolic nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, where all six of its nuclear tests took place.

Mr Kim’s delegation will include his country’s nominal head of state, the 90-year-old Kim Yong-nam, who led the North Korean delegation to South Korea during the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in February.

Also travelling is Kim Yo-jong, Mr Kim’s powerful younger sister, who delivered a personal letter as special envoy during the Olympics.

As befitting such a momentous occasion, the event will be heavy with symbolism.

After their summit talks, Mr Moon and Mr Kim plan to plant a pine tree on the demarcation line, Mr Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, told a media briefing.

Soil and water

The ceremony symbolises their desire for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and a tree from 1953 has been chosen. The soil will come from Mount Halla in South Korea and Mount Baekdu in the North, while the water will come from the South’s Han river and North Korea’s Daedong.

Trees also have a symbolic importance for Mr Moon. As a special forces commando he was part of a unit in 1976 that went in to the demilitarised zone to chop down a tree as a show of force, after North Koreans earlier killed two US soldiers there.

The menu also has deep significance. Mr Kim will be served Swiss “rösti” potatoes to remind him of his schooldays in Switzerland, while John Dory fish will also be on the menu as a reminder of Mr Moon’s childhood in the southern port city of Busan. They will also enjoy naengmyeon, a Pyongyang specialty that includes noodles and a meat broth, served cold. They will drink a distilled liquor called munbaeju, then watch a video clip themed Spring of One, before Mr Kim heads for home.

More than 2,800 journalists have signed up to cover the event.

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper gave credit for the talks to Mr Kim’s “bold decision” and the “passionate love” of all Koreans.

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