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Denuclearization to take center stage as Kim and Moon meet in rare inter-Korean summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Sixty-five years after the Korean War ended in an armistice, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will become the first leader from the North to set foot on South Korean soil when he strides across the Demilitarized Zone on Friday for a historic summit with the rival South’s president, Moon Jae-in.

The meeting, the third inter-Korean summit, will likely be tightly scripted — focusing on denuclearization, establishing permanent peace on the peninsula and improving relations ahead of a highly anticipated encounter between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in May or June.

Among those three key agenda items, talks on the North’s nuclear weapons are expected to take center stage.

The summit will see Moon meet Kim at the military demarcation line on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom. The North Korean leader is scheduled to walk across the border at 9:30 a.m., after which South Korean honor guards will escort the leaders to a welcome ceremony at a plaza in Panmunjom, pool reports quoted Im Jong-seok, the South’s presidential chief of staff, as saying Thursday.

Official dialogue between Kim and Moon will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Peace House in Panmunjom. After the end of the first session of talks, Kim and Moon will have lunch separately before holding a tree-planting ceremony in the afternoon, Im said.

A pine tree will be planted on the demarcation line to symbolize “peace and prosperity,” using soil from Mount Paektu in North Korea and Mount Halla in South Korea.

Kim and Moon will water the tree with water brought from the Taedong River in the North and the Han River in the South, Im said. Afterward, Moon and Kim will take a stroll together in Panmunjom before beginning the next round of talks.

At the end of the talks, Kim and Moon will sign a pact and make an announcement. Later, they will have dinner on the South’s side and watch a video clip themed “Spring of One” before wrapping up.

The summit comes after a sudden and spectacular diplomatic flourish orchestrated by Moon.

It also comes after Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear blast last year, as well as the launches of more than 20 missiles, including two longer-range weapons that flew over Japan and another that experts say puts the whole of the United States within striking distance.

Riding this wave of successes, Kim declared in his annual New Year’s speech this year that the North had “completed” its nuclear weapons program. But beyond touting his progress in building this arsenal, the speech also extended an olive branch to the South — an opening that Moon seized in a bid to ease soaring tensions on the peninsula.

Friday’s summit will be just the third of its kind after two in Pyongyang, the last being held more than a decade ago.

But don’t expect more of the same.

Philip Yun, a North Korea expert and executive director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco, said the summit is “significant” because it will be the first one held in South Korea.

Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was supposed to visit South Korea following the two earlier summits, something that never materialized, said Yun, who was a member of a U.S. government working group that managed American policy and negotiations with North Korea under President Bill Clinton. He was also part of the U.S. delegation that traveled to the North with then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright in October 2000.

“Another interesting note is that because this is being held on the South Korean side of the Panmunjom peace village, the South will be technically responsible for the outer security for Kim,” Yun said, calling the move “a significant showing of goodwill” by the North Korean leader.

The summit could prove to be a political boon — or a bane — for Moon.

The previous two summits saw Kim Jong Il meet late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung — who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts — in 2000, and President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. But in the end, both summits did little to slow the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“The last two summits were held relatively late in the terms of the South Korean presidents,” Yun said. “Given South Korean presidents have only one five-year term, they become ‘lame ducks’ relatively quickly, which limits their freedom of action. In the case of this summit, it is happening very early in Moon’s term.”

This could give him more time and leeway to push any agreements through.

It’s unclear what agreements might be reached, but Moon has talked of a “peace regime,” part of a plan unveiled in his so-called Berlin declaration made during his visit to the German capital last July, about two months after taking office.

Under that declaration, he pledged to pursue the North’s denuclearization with assurances of a security guarantee and economic and diplomatic incentives while also seeking a peace treaty.

Trump has given his “blessing” that the two Koreas could seek a peace deal, if North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal.

South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea, and technically it is not possible for the two Koreas to announce an end of the 1953 armistice, observers say. But the two Koreas could agree on their intention to end the war and work toward a peace agreement and pursue discussions with the involved countries, such as the U.S.

Such an approach would be a huge step in comparison to prior summits, which “primarily focused on areas that the two Koreas could directly affect, such as North-South economic and cultural projects,” said Patrick McEachern, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and author of a book on North Korea’s institutional politics.

McEachern said the third summit “is distinct in trying to directly set the stage for a U.S.-DPRK summit … that can address the most pressing security issues facing the Korean Peninsula, including denuclearization and possible peace negotiations.”

“The stakes are higher for this inter-Korean summit, and we won’t be able to fully judge its success until after the U.S. and North Korean leaders meet,” he added.

According to Yun, “a clearer understanding on what North Korea means by its willingness to denuclearize” is also likely to emerge from the meeting — a key aim of the Moon administration.

Seoul’s hope is that, “if a clear commitment on denuclearization can be specified and, more than that, if that can be confirmed as meaning the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, (we) would see it as very successful,” Im, the South Korean presidential spokesman, said Thursday.

Such a commitment “would be quite great … leading up to the North Korea-U.S. summit talks,” he added.

Over the weekend, Pyongyang announced a moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches as well as the closure of its main atomic test site, with Kim saying it had completed its goal.

The South hailed that move as “meaningful progress” toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization. But the North has declared moratoriums before, and has also talked about denuclearization, while previous agreements have ended up foundering.

As for the North Korean leader’s appearance at the high-profile summit, which will be the focus of global attention, Yun said he was “betting that Kim Jong Un will throw in a surprise, from both a substantive as well as public relations perspective.”

Kim has kicked off a coming out party of sorts over the past two months, meeting with officials from the South for talks that helped pave the way for Friday’s summit and the Trump meeting.

In that time, he has made his first trip outside the country since becoming North Korean leader in 2011, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, while also holding court in Pyongyang with the head of the International Olympic Committee and later taking in a performance by some of rival South Korea’s top musical stars.

Friday will be a prime opportunity for him to shed his image as the leader of nuclear-armed pariah state, experts said.

“The world will be focused on this summit,” said Yun. “So it is another opportunity for Kim Jong Un to shine and promote himself in what has been a flurry of diplomatic activity. He will surely take advantage of it.”

The diplomatic push has also prompted talk of Kim meeting with other world leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to see progress on the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents.

While Moon told Abe on Tuesday that he will raise the issue in his talks with Kim, McEachern said he does not expect it to be a major part of the inter-Korean summit.

“President Moon can signal the international community’s interest in this important humanitarian matter by mentioning it, but it requires direct Japan-DPRK engagement to address beyond that,” McEachern said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Fearing that it may be left behind, Japan has informed North Korea of its desire to hold a bilateral Kim-Abe summit through several channels since February, according to media reports quoting sources close to bilateral relations.

“Given Abe’s nervousness about North Korea, his political standing at home, and his embarrassment from being surprised about Trump’s agreement to meet Kim Jong Un, Abe will have more incentive to become part of this diplomatic process,” said Yun.