SEOUL – It was a historic handshake that Koreans had waited more than a decade to see — and it sparked a completely unscripted dance with the two leaders hopping back and forth over the border that divides their nations.
Everything about the inter-Korean summit had been minutely choreographed and rehearsed, but the North’s Kim Jong Un went off-script when he invited his southern counterpart Moon Jae-in to join him over the border.
After a prolonged clasp lasting almost half a minute over the Military Demarcation Line that acts as the border, a beaming Moon invited his guest over to South Korea.
They posed for pictures as Kim became the first Northern leader to set foot in the country since Korean War hostilities ceased in 1953.
Kim then beckoned Moon over to the other side. Moon seemed initially hesitant but the North’s jovial young leader was not taking “no” for an answer, grabbing his hand and accompanying him across the border before they warmly shook hands again.
Grinning broadly, the pair then crossed back to the South hand-in-hand, in a remarkable image of unity.
More off-the-cuff moments followed as the leaders corralled the two delegations into an apparently unscheduled “team photo.”
It all went to show that even for a moment as carefully planned as the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade, where the North’s nuclear arsenal will be high on the agenda, the best-laid preparations rarely run totally to schedule.
South Korean officials had carried out a full dress rehearsal on the eve of the summit, including stand-ins for the two leaders.
“We examined every single detail including lighting and flower decorations,” a Moon spokesman said.
The welcoming ceremony dripped with symbolism as the two men walked down a red carpet through an honor guard of South Korean soldiers colorfully dressed in traditional uniform lifting up banners as they went through.
They were also greeted by a military band, Moon saluting and Kim standing rather awkwardly not quite to attention, the first North Korean leader to inspect an honor guard from the South.
The pair seemed to share several relaxed moments, with Kim at one point breaking into a laugh as Moon pointed something out with a gesture during the ceremony, and the visitor from Pyongyang joking about noodles during his summit opening remarks as his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong took notes.
There were also moments of unexpected comedy as Kim Yo Jong and another delegation member following the two leaders realized they were in shot and wildly swerved off to the side.
And the live TV pictures of the two leaders inspecting a picture of Mount Kumgang in North Korea were obstructed by a photographer standing in the way.
There was some awkwardness too as Kim took a long time to sign the guest book, with Moon standing by, seemingly not knowing where to look.
But also brief moments of tenderness, with Moon several times gently guiding his guest with a light hand on the back.
Their lingering handshake contrasted sharply with the greeting in 2000 between the current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a vigorous two-handed pumping affair lasting around five seconds.
The 2007 version was slightly more muted — three seconds and only one hand — as Kim Jong Il welcomed Roh Moo-hyun in Pyongyang.
The North has since made rapid progress in its weapons programs, last year detonating its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear blast and launching missiles over Japan and bringing the U.S. mainland into range.
At times of tension, Pyongyang has threatened to unleash the “treasured sword” of its atomic arsenal and turn Seoul and the U.S. into a “sea of flames.”
But the image that lingered on Friday was that of the two leaders hand in hand, walking across the border to the South toward a summit many hope could lead to a more peaceful future.