GOYANG, South Korea — North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has laid the foundations for a meeting with President 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 the president of the South, 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.”
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 in early June. Trump has said he will go to the talks only if they promise to be “fruitful,” a bar that probably was met with Friday’s meetings.
Kim and Moon on 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.”
The two Koreas agreed “to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community” in that endeavor, 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 previously had 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 in front of cameras.
Previous inter-Korean agreements also have pledged denuclearization, and there is significant skepticism in Washington and Tokyo, in particular, about whether this time will be any different.
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 that he would 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.
“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 engagement.
“Yes, there are still questions about how to guarantee North Korea’s security on the path to 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.
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 that must not be delayed any further,” the statement said.
The United States signed the armistice agreement 65 years ago on behalf of the South Korean side, and shortly after Friday’s announcement, Trump tweeted, “KOREAN WAR TO END!”
The two sides also plan to set up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a city just inside the northern side of the border, and Moon said he would visit Pyongyang this fall. 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 set foot in South Korea.
“When you crossed the military border for the first time, Panmunjom became a symbol of peace, not a symbol of division,” Moon later said to Kim.
Showing his penchant for bold and surprising moves, 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 standing in train stations and teachers stopping classes so their students could watch the moment.
Moon and Kim spent hours together on Friday, in formal talks and in a half-hour 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 anymore — a reference to the fact that North Korea’s missile launches usually happened at about dawn — and he even referred to the North Koreans who have escaped to the South. He acknowledged that the North’s infrastructure network is far inferior to the South’s.
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 full of symbolism, including noodles from Pyongyang and 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 from throughout 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.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.