The leaders of North and South Korea made a bold pledge Friday to work toward a "common goal" of denuclearizing their peninsula and formally ending the Korean War by the end of this year, following a historic day of talks on the border that has divided them for almost seven decades.
GOYANG, South Korea – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has laid the foundations for a meeting with President Donald Trump as soon as next month, signaling a willingness to discuss denuclearization and trying to dispel the idea that he’s an unreliable “little rocket man.”
In an astonishing turn of events, a beaming Kim on Friday stepped across the border into South Korea for a day of talks that began and ended with him holding hands with Southern President Moon Jae-in.
They talked, they joked, they walked, they ate, and, when they signed a joint statement pledging to work toward their “common goal” of denuclearizing their peninsula, they hugged.
“Today we saw Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive in action,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. “He’s exerting his influence and trying to grab the spotlight with a big smile. But behind that smile, he was wearing his game face,” she said.
Indeed, with Friday’s historic summit and the bold, if vague, pledge to discuss giving up his nuclear program, Kim is trying to rewrite the public narrative about him and ease some of the outside pressure on him.
“Good things are happening, but only time will tell!” Trump, who has championed a “maximum pressure” campaign against Kim, tweeted early Friday morning in Washington.
The warmth of the meeting and the positive images beamed onto TV screens across the globe have set the stage for Kim to meet with Trump at the end of May or early June. The former reality TV host has said he will go to the talks only if they promise to be “fruitful,” a bar that likely was met with Friday’s meetings.
Kim and Moon Friday signed a three-page “Panmunjom Declaration,” named after the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas where it was forged, stating that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
“South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” it said.
But the agreement was short on details, and the phrase “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” will ring alarm bells in Washington because it implies that nuclear weapons will not be allowed in South Korea, either.
The United States, South Korea’s security ally, regularly sends nuclear-capable aircraft and ships to the South during military exercises, so this clause will raise suspicions that Pyongyang is calling for a significant change in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Moon had previously said that Kim would not insist on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South, and there was no mention of this in Friday’s agreement.
Kim did not mention the word “denuclearization” when he appeared before the press after signing the agreement, although he stayed on message throughout.
“We will work to make sure that the agreement bears good results, by closely communicating to ensure that the failure to implement North-South agreements in the past will not be repeated,” Kim said, standing at a podium in front of cameras.
Previous inter-Korean agreements have also pledged denuclearization, and there is a significant amount of skepticism in Washington and Tokyo in particular about whether this time will be any different.
The fact that Kim signed his name to a statement that even included the word “denuclearization” marked significant progress after a year of threats and missile launches that brought the specter of war back to the Korean Peninsula.
And Friday’s agreement marks a significant change from Kim’s previous statements when he said he will continue to expand his nuclear arsenal, said Patrick McEachern, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Instead, the two leaders established a framework for plausible resolution of the most pressing issues on the peninsula, he said.
“This is a great start and should be cause for cautious optimism,” said McEachern, who worked on North Korea in the State Department. “The public conversation should now shift from speculation on whether North Korea would consider denuclearization to how South Korea and the United States can advance this denuclearization pledge in concrete steps.”
Even the most optimistic analysts were surprised at the scope of the agreement, noting in particular that Kim has now signed a document that includes the word “denuclearization.”
“You can’t ask for more than that,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul and a keen proponent of diplomatic engagement.
“Yes, there are still questions about how to guarantee North Korea’s security on the path the denuclearization. But I’m surprised they would go this far at this early stage, that Kim Jong Un didn’t save this for his meeting with Trump,” Delury added.
In Friday’s declaration, Kim and Moon also agreed to work to turn the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 into a peace treaty that would officially bring the war to a close.
“South and North Korea will actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” the joint statement said in English, as officially translated by the South’s presidential Blue House.
The Korean language version used the words “peace treaty” – an important distinction. “Treaty” generally refers to a piece of paper while “regime” means a system for peace, such as stopping military activities.
“Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission must not be delayed any further,” the statement said.
The United States signed the armistice agreement on behalf of the South Korean side, and Trump has said that he supports such a move. Shortly after the announcement, Trump tweeted, “KOREAN WAR TO END!”
[As Kim crosses into South Korea, a historic summit hangs on the North’s nuclear intentions]
The two sides also plan to set up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a city just over the northern side of the border, and Moon said he would visit Pyongyang this fall. During their conversations earlier in the day, Kim said he would happily travel to Seoul if invited.
The signing ceremony came at the end of an extraordinary day full of words and gestures that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the year.
At 9:30 a.m. Friday, Kim came out of the main building on the northern side of the military demarcation line that has divided the Korean Peninsula for 65 years and walked right up to the line.
Moon was waiting there for him, hand outstretched, and Kim became the first North Korean leader to step foot into South Korea.
“When you crossed the military border for the first time, Panmunjom became a symbol of peace, not a symbol of division,” Moon said to Kim later.
Showing his penchant for bold and surprising moves – a tactic that was repeated later with the hug – Kim then asked Moon to step back across the line with him, and he did. For a brief moment, the leaders stood in North Korean territory, holding hands.
The moment was broadcast live across the country, with commuters stopping in train stations and teachers stopping classes so their students could watch the moment, and North Korean state television even broadcast an unscheduled news bulletin to announce that Kim was on his way to Panmunjom.
Moon and Kim proceeded to spend hours together on Friday, both in formal talks and in a half-hour-long private discussion on park benches outside in the sun, surrounded by birdsong. They threw soil and water from both Koreas onto a pine tree planted in the demilitarized zone to mark the occasion.
At one stage during the day, Kim assured Moon he would not have to wake up early any more – a reference to the fact that North Korea’s missile launches usually happened at about dawn – and he even made references to the fact that North Koreans have escaped to the South and that the North’s infrastructure network is far inferior to the South’s. That was astounding for the leader of a country that has also sold itself as a “socialist paradise.”
As part of his charm offensive, Kim appealed to Moon as a fellow Korean, highlighting their shared culture and framing their problems as ones that only they, as Koreans, could solve.
Then, after a dinner that was full of symbolism, from the noodles that came from Pyongyang to the fish brought in from Moon’s home town, they sat together in the DMZ to watch a show of lights and music. This culminated with the two Korean leaders standing hand in hand, watching as photos of them through the day were beamed onto the building from which the South usually keeps a watchful eye on the North.
The outcome was as good as Kim could have hoped for, said Christopher Green, senior adviser for the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group.
“For a tyrant ruling 25 million people in a corner of East Asia, this is a big deal,” he said.
It also makes sense for a leader under pressure and facing two leaders who want to make a deal.
“If I were Kim Jong Un, I would want to explore what was possible with Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump because they’re an unusual pair,” Green said, referring to Moon’s strong desire to engage and Trump’s penchant for chalking up victories.
Friday’s summit and the result agreement provides the political space for Trump and Kim to meet and make new pledges, said Duyeon Kim, the Seoul-based analyst. “Whether or not Kim Jong Un means it is a completely different story.”
The Washington Post’s Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.