GOYANG, South Korea (AP) — The leaders of North and South Korea played it safe Friday, repeating a previous vow to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons but failing to provide any specific measures or forge a potential breakthrough on an issue that has captivated the world since the rivals seemed on the verge of war last year.
In a sense, the vague statement by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to achieve "a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization" kicks the issue down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in coming weeks.
Even so, the Koreas’ historic summit Friday might be remembered as much for the striking images of two men from nations with a deep and bitter history of acrimony holding each other’s hands and grinning from ear to ear as they crossed back into the North and then returned again to the South after Kim first made history by walking over the border to greet Moon. Kim was the first North Korean leader to touch southern soil since the end of the Korean War.
It marks a surreal, whiplash swing in relations for the Koreas, 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 only meters (feet) from the spot where a North Korean soldier fled in a hail of gunfire months earlier, and an easy walk from where North Korean soldiers axe-murdered two U.S. soldiers in 1976.
The summit must be seen in the context of the last year — when the United States, its ally South Korea and the North 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.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests last year likely put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. North Korea, which has spent decades doggedly building its bombs despite crippling sanctions and near-constant international opprobrium, claims it has already risen to that level.
"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 skepticism over their summit. "We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfill them. ... There are skeptical 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 and Moon in their talks vowed to have more meetings, according to Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, with Kim joking that he would make sure not to interrupt Moon’s sleep anymore, a reference to the North’s drumbeat of early-morning missile tests last year. 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.
Earlier, both leaders smiled broadly as Moon grasped Kim’s hand and led him along a blindingly red carpet into South Korean territory, where schoolchildren gave Kim flowers and an honor guard stood at attention for inspection, a military band playing traditional Korean folk songs beloved by both Koreas and the South Korean equivalent of "Hail to the Chief." It’s the first time a North Korean leader has crossed over to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone since the Korean War ended in 1953.
The greeting of the two leaders was planned to the last detail. Thousands of journalists were kept in a huge conference center well away from the summit, except for a small group of tightly controlled pool reporters at the border. 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 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. They took ceremonial photos facing the North and then facing the South.
Two fifth-grade students from the Daesongdong Elementary School, the only South Korean school within the DMZ, greeted the leaders and gave Kim flowers. Kim and Moon then saluted an honor guard and military band, and Moon introduced Kim to South Korean government officials. Kim returned the favor, introducing Moon to the North Korean officials accompanying him. They then took a photo inside the Peace House, where the summit was to take place, in front of a painting of South Korea’s Bukhan Mountain, which towers over the South Korean Blue House presidential mansion. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was by his side throughout the ceremony, handing him a pen to sign a guestbook, taking the schoolchildren’s flowers from his hand and scribbling notes at the start of the talks with Moon.
Expectations were 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, however, say the only way to get a deal is to do what the Koreas tried Friday: Sit down and see what’s possible.
The White House said in a statement that it is "hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula. ... (and) looks forward to continuing robust discussions in preparation for the planned meeting between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks."
North Korea may see the Trump summit see as a way to legitimize its declared status as a nuclear power.
AP writers Kim Tong-hyung, Hyung-jin Kim and Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.
Foster Klug, the AP’s bureau chief for South Korea, has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apklug