In a remarkable day-long summit that weighed heavy with symbolism, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un embraced, planted a tree and talked alone for more than 30 minutes.
Then, they signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula, which commits the two countries to a nuclear-free peninsula, and talks to bring a formal end to conflict.
In separate speeches, Kim and Moon promised a new era for the Korean Peninsula. Addressing the world’s media live on television for the first time, Kim said the Koreas “will be reunited as one country.”
But behind all the ceremony, there were few concrete details. The Panmunjom Declaration largely steered clear of specifics regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, and did not set out what North Korea would expect to get in exchange for denuclearization.
The pledge to end the Korean war faces major hurdles — any final peace deal must also involve China and the US, both of whom were participants in the original conflict.
US President Donald Trump and most of the US were asleep as the day’s events unfolded, but when Washington woke, Trump, who is due to meet Kim in May or June, tweeted all Americans “should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”
“After a furious year of missile launches and nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North and South Korea,” he said. “Good things are happening, but only time will tell!”
South Korea had choreographed the meeting of the two leaders down to the second, but it was Kim who delivered the most dramatic moment.
After he crossed the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea to shake hands with Moon, Kim invited him to step into the North. Moon hesitated for the briefest of seconds, before walking into North Korean territory.
The image was greeted by gasps, cheers and applause from people watching it on a large screen in central Seoul, and at a conference center in nearby Ilsan, where the South Korean government had set up a sprawling media center for the thousands of journalists invited to watch history being made.
It was also perhaps the only spontaneous moment in what was a carefully scripted affair, which those on the South Korean side had been practicing and rehearsing for weeks.
“President Moon briefly crossed over the MDL to the North,” the Blue House said in a statement, referring to the military demarcation line. “This was not a planned event.”
The rest of the day went entirely to plan, however. Writing in a visitor’s book upon entering the Peace House, where negotiations took place, Kim wrote “a new history begins now” and “an age of peace, at the starting point of history.”
After a morning of meetings with officials, Kim and Moon took part in a symbolic tree-planting ceremony in the DMZ. The tree was from 1953, the year the Korean War armistice was signed. Kim used soil from a mountain on the southern island of Jeju while Moon used earth from Mount Paektu in the north.
Then, the two leaders left their officials behind and walked alone through the DMZ to a footbridge that was recently repainted the same blue used on the Korean Unification Flag. Unexpectedly, they talked for 30 minutes alone. The contents of their conversation have not been disclosed.
Finally, the stunning moment of the summit when the pair signed the agreement that pledged to end the decades of conflict between their two nations, and sets them on a path towards denuclearization.
Moon praised Kim’s “courageous and bold decision” to sit down for talks during their morning meeting. “Over the past seven decades we weren’t able to communicate, so I think we can talk the whole day today”, Moon said, drawing laughs from Kim as the day began.
Jean H Lee, a North Korea expert at the US based Wilson Center, said the images of Kim will have a great resonance in South Korea.
“For more than a decade, South Koreans have been cut off from North Korea due to tensions,” she said in a statement.
“Seeing Kim Jong Un live, chatting easily with their president, will no doubt have been jolt to South Koreans and remind them that the North Koreans are the same people in many ways, in language and shared history if not their political or economic structure.”
While Friday was all smiles and handshakes, there are signs the declaration may contain potential pitfalls. Under the declaration, the two parties “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
What all sides mean by denuclearization
has long been a sticking point, especially between North Korea and the US.
“Going into the US-North Korea summit, the key question remains whether North Korea would truly give up its nuclear weapons program,” Stratfor Asia Pacific analyst Evan Rees said in a statement.
“The phrasing of the Panmunjom Declaration refers to denuclearization of the peninsula, which could mean movement of US strategic assets, and a phased, rather than a rapid denuclearization — which goes against what the US has called for.”
Earlier in the day, Kim Jong Un said he hoped disagreements would not result in the non-implementation of the declaration, as they have done in the past, hinting he may be aware that the deal is not yet quite done.
Decades of tension
North of Seoul, along the Freedom Road, which stretches from the city to the Reunification Bridge leading into the demilitarized zone (DMZ), there was a sign of the changing mood: on one side of the highway, yellow and white balloons emblazoned with a blue map of Koreas; on the other, razor wire, guard towers and heavily armed soldiers patrolling the southern bank of the Han River which bisects the still-at-war Peninsula.
While fighting ended 65 years ago, the wounds of war are still very apparent. Families remain split by the conflict, unable to see their relatives on the other side, and some who lost relatives decades ago are still unaware of what fate befell them.
Near the DMZ Thursday, 51 people from the Korean War Veterans Revisit Korea Program had gathered to remember their relatives lost in that conflict and support peace and reunification.
“My father Karle Seydel was killed December 7, 1950 in the Chosun reservoir,” Ruth Hebert, who was from San Diego in California, told CNN. His body is believed to be still somewhere inside North Korea.
Hebert said she had spoken with South Koreans who had lost family members in the war and been separated from relatives by the partitioning of the Peninsula.
“We hope and pray that … this starts to really change,” she added. “There’s a hope with Japan, with Korea, with the Americans to recover remains. There may be a few (prisoners of war) alive but mostly now it’s down to remains.”
A formal end to the war will involve more than just the Koreas. Both China and the US, under the flag of the United Nations, were massively involved in the conflict, and would have to be signatories to an eventual peace treaty.