From brink of war to hopes of peace: Kim Jong Un heads south for summit

(CNN) — Kim Jong Un has declared “a new history begins now” after shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the start of a landmark peace summit.

Kim became the first North Korean leader to step into South Korean territory since 1953 on Friday morning, crossing the line that separates the two Koreas at the demilitarized zone (DMZ.)

He was greeted by President Moon before walking along a red carpet to the Peace House for the first meeting between the leaders of the divided Koreas since 2007.

Kim received a full welcoming ceremony, including a military band which played the traditional Korean folk song “arirang,” well known in both North and South Korea.

The two leaders appeared at ease, smiling and talking, and on entering the Peace House Kim signed a guest bookwhere he wrote “a new history starts now” and “an age of peace, at the starting point of history.”

Both men traveled to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Friday for a full day of talks on three subjects with worldwide implications — the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a peace settlement and the improvement of bilateral relations.

Crowds of supporters, holding signs calling for denuclearization, waved off the South Korean President as he left his residence in Seoul and his motorcade’s hour-long drive north towards the DMZ was broadcast live to the world.

Huge banners have been displayed across the South Korean capital of Seoul proclaiming “Peace, a new start” amid speculation the two leaders could discuss signing an official peace treaty finally ending the Korean War.

Kim would “open-heartedly discuss” all the issues with Moon, and was entering talks with the hope of “achieving peace prosperity and reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” North Korean state media KCNA said.

The summit is the result of months of diplomatic wrangling and negotiating on the part of Moon, a longtime advocate of peace between the Koreas. It will also set the stage for the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader when Donald Trump and Kim meet in late May or June.

In a White House statement issued on Friday morning, the Trump administration said it hoped the talks “will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.”

However, stakes are high and some observers are doubtful the two sides can bridge the gap created by 60 years of antagonism and suspicion.

Officials across the world, especially in the United States, will be paying close attention to any specific agreements by Kim relating to his nuclear arsenal.

While Kim has in recent weeks publicly endorsed denuclearization, what exactly he means by the term and how it would take place has been left extremely vague.

Rumors of peace treaty

It is the third summit between the leaders of North and South Korea — the last was in 2007 when then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim’s father Kim Jong Il. President Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and a close personal friend. Both previous meetings were held in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Friday’s summit will begin at 10.20 a.m. and will run until lunchtime, after which Kim and Moon will plant a pine tree as a prayer for peace and prosperity between the two countries.

As with all aspects of Friday’s talks, the planting will be deeply symbolic — the soil to be used is a mixture from both sides of the border, as is the water that will be poured on the newly planted tree.

“It’s very different from Moon going to Pyongyang or Kim coming to Seoul,” John Delury, professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, told CNN.

“The location itself ensures it’s a working meeting. Now within that context, they’re breaking bread, they’re spending a full day together, so that’s important.”

While there is no indication yet as to what Kim and Moon are likely to agree, Im said an announcement would be made after the summit and an agreement would be signed.

Then the pair will attend an elaborate dinner, to be held around 6.30 p.m. local time, that will include symbolic dishes originating from both countries.

As Moon and Kim leave the banquet, they will watch a video projected on the side of the Peace House, portraying the past, present and future of the Korean Peninsula.

Rumors of peace treaty

The South Korean government has sought to make the event as open and transparent as possible, organizing a free live broadcast for South Koreans to watch on their phones or on giant TV screens in public places.

“They’re trying to create a moment. They’re trying to open a window of understand and dialogue and figure out how to solve problems,” Delury said.

Speculation in recent weeks has focused on the possibility that Moon and Kim’s meeting could lead to the signing of a peace treaty between the North and the South, officially ending the Korean War after almost 70 years.

Caught between advancing Soviet forces and the United States military, the two countries were first divided after the end of World War II.

Tensions between the freshly-split Koreas led to a bloody war beginning in 1950 and only ended with the signing of the armistice in 1953. However, no peace treaty was ever officially signed.

Over the next 60 years the two countries have had a rocky, tense relationship, worsening in the past five years amid Pyongyang’s concerted push to develop its missile and nuclear programs.

One topic unlikely to be raised during the discussions is North Korea’s atrocious human rights record, which a United Nations report in March said left “people at the mercy of unaccountable public officials.”

North Korea, ruled with an iron fist by Kim, restricts its citizens’ movements, freedom of expression and access to basic essentials, as well as running what is widely considered to be an extensive and brutal system of prison camps.

Kim took over as leader following his father’s death in 2011, extending the Kim family’s authoritarian rule that began with his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung.

Denuclearization

For the estimated 2,000 local and international journalists attending the summit, one topic will draw more attention than any other — will North Korea agree to any form of denuclearization?

Threats of war loomed over the Peninsula towards the end of 2017, after Pyongyang announced it had developed the ability to strike the United States mainland.

Only a few months later, Kim has publicly promised to end North Korea’s nuclear program and said he is willing to join in talks on denuclearization “of the Korean Peninsula.”

Speaking to CNN Thursday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Trump deserved the credit for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table for the first time in years. “He’s been determined to come to grips with this from day one,” Kang said.

Evans Revere, former State Department expert on North Korea, told CNN the most important outcome of Friday’s talks would be whether or not Pyongyang was serious about dismantling its nuclear arsenal.

“One of the critical priorities for the South Korean President I think is to try to get them on the record saying something more substantial and concrete in terms of denuclearization,” he said.

Many experts have pointed to broad misunderstandings in what “denuclearization” means for Pyongyang and the United States. Moon insists both countries are on the same page.

Revere said he was one of the “many skeptics” who were not holding their breath for many concessions by North Korea on their nuclear program.

“The North Korean language thus far has not been very specific … that suggests that they’re not being particularly serious about denuclearization,” he said.