When Kim Jong Un crosses the border dividing the two Koreas to shake hands with southern counterpart Moon Jae-in on Friday, his footsteps will be laden with symbolism.
Kim’s decision to meet on Moon’s side of the military demarcation line — making him the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea — reflects new confidence in his country’s bargaining power. He’s showing that he feels secure enough to leave his isolated capital after developing a nuclear arsenal capable of threatening Moon’s protectors in Washington, as well as Seoul.
“This is major,” said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “He is losing all the optics that others accuse him of — wanting to pretend that he is at the center of the world and that whoever is visiting is a dignitary coming to kowtow.”
The venue — at the “Truce Village” of Panmunjom where the armistice was signed — is only one change from the previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 that were held in Pyongyang. This meeting is intended to facilitate negotiations over Kim’s nuclear weapons program, rather than reward their results.
The event will set up a historic meeting between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump some time by early June. The unprecedented encounter, which observers say could either finally resolve the 68-year-old Korean War or create conditions for a new one, has infused every gesture and remark between Kim and Moon with gravity.
In recent weeks, Kim, whose government has often derided the South Koreans as U.S. “vassals,” has emphasized reconciliation and flexibility. On Friday, he extended his freeze on nuclear weapons testing as part of a shift toward greater emphasis on the economy.
The moves have raised expectations that the two sides could announce some breakthrough, such as declaring an end to their enduring war. That could open the door for formal peace talks and a security guarantee from the U.S. — a crucial step to convincing Kim to disarm.
“We can’t imagine any scenario where the North Koreans are even going to contemplate giving their nuclear weapons without a peace treaty and without security guarantees,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, director and senior fellow at New America in New York, who facilitated talks in Oslo that led to U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier’s release from North Korea. “The inter-Korean dialogue is obviously leading the way on the direction of how the U.S.-North Korean dialogue will go.”
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, has matched Kim’s flair for symbolism. The South Korean leader has prepared a banquet for Kim featuring a menu rich with Korean history, including dishes from the hometowns of past South Korean presidents, noodles from Pyongyang and references to Kim’s boarding school days in Switzerland.
Moon is a proponent of the “Sunshine Policy” of former President Kim Dae-jung, who broke with the hard-line and policies of previous South Korean leaders and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Moon served as chief of staff to Kim Dae-jung’s successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, who secured a landmark agreement in 2007 that included an agreement to start peace talks.
Should Kim cross the border on foot Friday, it would evoke the Roh’s own symbolic walk across the frontier 11 years ago. That would set the tone for a summit, where everything from welcoming ceremony to seating arrangements to guest lists will be careful scrutinized for layered meaning.
In 2000, the North Koreans’ guests to a farewell luncheon were symbolically important leaders with no practical role in inter-Korean relations. In contrast, their 2007 guests included the prime minister and the defense minister — both of whom were involved in implementing the resulting declaration.
Getting the symbolism right, will be a top priority for Moon, who’s hoping to avoid the failures of past efforts to secure peace and end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The two sides will meet at an oval table, 2,018 millimeters long, in a nod to what some hope will be an historic year.
“Moon is the most experienced South Korean president to ever negotiate with North Korea,” Kang said. “He knows what they did well, he knows what they did poorly. He has had 10 years to think about what he would do.”
(Kanga Kong and Jihye Lee contributed to this report)
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