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North Korea's Kim Jong-un says Koreas on starting line of a new history

AP reports— With a single step over a weathered, cracked slab of concrete, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made history Friday by crossing over the world’s most heavily armed border to greet South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Kim then invited Moon to cross briefly back into the north with him before they returned to the southern side.

Those small steps must be seen in the context of the last year — when the United States, its ally South Korea and the North seemed at times to be on the verge of nuclear war as the North unleashed a torrent of weapons tests — but also in light of the long, destructive history of the rival Koreas, who fought one of the 20th century’s bloodiest conflicts and even today occupy a divided peninsula that’s still technically in a state of war.

“I feel like I’m firing a flare at the starting line in the moment of (the two Koreas) writing a new history in North-South relations, peace and prosperity,” Kim told Moon as they sat at a table, which had been built so that exactly 2018 millimeters separated them, to begin their closed-door talks. Moon responded that there were high expectations that they produce an agreement that will be a “big gift to the entire Korean nation and every peace loving person in the world.”

Beyond the carefully choreographed greeting, however, it’s still not clear whether the leaders can make any progress in talks on the nuclear issue, which has bedeviled U.S. and South Korean officials for decades. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests last year likely put it on the threshold of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. North Korea claims it has already risen to that level.

Kim acknowledged the widespread skepticism: “We have reached big agreements before but were unable to fulfill them ... There are skeptical views on whether the meeting today will yield meaningful results,” Kim said. “If we maintain a firm will and proceed forward hand in hand, it will be impossible at least for things to get worse than they are now.”

The leaders had “sincere, candid” talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and were working on the wording of a joint statement, according to Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan. They also discussed ways to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula and improve ties.

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Kim and Moon in their talks vowed to have more meetings, Yoon said, with Kim joking that he would make sure not to interrupt Moon’s sleep anymore, a reference to the North’s drumbeat of early morning missile tests last year. Kim also referred to a South Korean island that North Korea attacked with artillery in 2010, killing four, saying the residents of Yeonpyeong Island who have been living in fear of North Korean artillery have high hopes the summit will help heal past scars. Kim said he’d visit Seoul’s presidential Blue House if invited.

Earlier, both leaders smiled broadly as Moon grasped Kim’s hand and led him along a blindingly red carpet into South Korean territory, where schoolchildren gave Kim flowers and an honor guard stood at attention for inspection, a military band playing traditional Korean folk songs beloved by both Koreas and the South Korean equivalent of “Hail to the Chief.” It’s the first time a North Korean leader has crossed over to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The greeting of the two leaders was planned to the last detail. Thousands of journalists were kept in a huge conference center well away from the summit, except for a small group of tightly controlled pool reporters at the border. Moon stood near the Koreas’ dividing line, moving forward the moment he glimpsed Kim, dressed in dark, Mao-style suit, appearing in front of a building on the northern side. They shook hands with the border line between them. Moon then invited Kim to cross into the South, and, after Kim did so, Moon said, “You have crossed into the South, but when do I get to go across?” Kim replied, “Why don’t we go across now?” and then grasped Moon’s hand and led him into the North and then back into the South. They took ceremonial photos facing the North and then facing the South.

The White House said in a statement that it is “hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula. ... (and) looks forward to continuing robust discussions in preparation for the planned meeting between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks.”

Moon, a liberal whose election last year ended a decade of conservative rule in Seoul, will be looking to make some headway on the North’s nuclear program in advance of a planned summit in several weeks between Kim and Trump.

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People hold the Korean unification flag as they watch a news report on the inter-Korean summit. (Reuters: Kim Hong-ji)

My view: Kim Jong-un is very smart, as he knows the importance of being relevant on the world stage and having foreign investors invest in his country. He has shown himself supremely secure and confident, ready to play at the same level as major powers.

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