The Irrawaddy

Smiles and Long Handshakes Mark Start of Summit Between Leaders of Rival Koreas

SEOUL — The golden doors on the stately North Korean building swung open and leader Kim Jong Un, in a black Mao suit and surrounded by a gaggle of officials, began to descend the steps toward the border.

Not since the 1950-53 Korean War had a North Korean leader set foot on South Korean soil.

With a smile, Kim stretched out his hand toward a waiting, and smiling, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who stood between the squat, light blue buildings that straddle the border at Panmunjom.

The village is one of the few places where there are no high barbed wire fences or minefields between the two countries, separated by a conflict that ended with a truce, not a treaty, meaning they are still technically at war.

Grasping hands across the border, the two men greeted one another.

“I was excited to meet at this historic place and it is really moving that you came all the way to the demarcation line to greet me in person,” Kim said.

“It was your big decision to make it here,” said Moon, dressed in a dark suit and light blue tie, who invited Kim to step over the line in the pavement, which he did.

That’s something Kim’s grandfather, the North Korean regime’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, or father Kim Jong Il, never achieved.

The two previous summits between leaders of the Koreas, in 2000 and 2007, were in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.

Shaking hands again, Moon, 65, and Kim, 34, turned to face photographers on the North and then the South before Kim grabbed Moon’s hand and, in an unplanned move, invited him to step across the border into the North, where they stood face-to-face to talk a bit more.

The scene unfolded in simple, even run-down surroundings, where a concrete slab marks the border and paint is cracking on the low wooden huts.

The apparent warmth between the men was in stark contrast to the tension between the two countries last year amid North Korean weapons testing.

Since January, however, ties have thawed, including having their Olympics sports teams march together under a common flag at February’s winter games in South Korea.

After being led along a red carpet by South Korean honor guard in traditional blue, yellow and red outfits, the two men entered the Peace House on the South side, where they were expected to discuss denuclearization and cultural exchanges.

Minutes before Kim entered Peace House, a North Korean security team conducted a sweep for explosives and listening devices, as well as sprayed apparent disinfectant in the air, on the chairs, and on a guest book Kim was to sign.

Kim’s written message in the guest book sounded hopeful.

“A new history starts now,” he wrote. “An age of peace, from the starting point of history.”