In a meeting heavy with history and symbolism, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Peace House on the southern side of the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries.
Three potentially world-changing topics are on the agenda for the meeting — denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a peace settlement and the improvement of inter-Korea relations.
Around downtown Seoul, the South Korean capital, giant blue posters and billboards display the slogan “Peace, a new start,” while others show a unified Korean Peninsula over an image of shaking hands.
The summit is the result of months of diplomatic wrangling and negotiating on the part of Moon, a longtime advocate of peace between the Koreas. It will also set the stage for the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader when Donald Trump and Kim meet in May or June.
“The problem has always been the two Koreas have never been able to fully implement their past agreements that agree on peace and establishing peace,” Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, told CNN.
“In practical terms, what’s the first step you take toward peace?”
Rumors of peace treaty
Cameras from around the world will be fixed on the moment Kim steps across the demarcation line that runs through the demilitarized zone between the two countries.
Friday’s summit will begin at 10.20 a.m. and will run until lunchtime, after which Kim and Moon will plant a pine tree as a prayer for peace and prosperity between the two countries.
As with all aspects of Friday’s talks, the planting will be deeply symbolic — the soil to be used is a mixture from both sides of the border, as is the water that will be poured on the newly planted tree.
“It’s very different from Moon going to Pyongyang or Kim coming to Seoul,” John Delury, professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Relations in Seoul, told CNN.
“The location itself ensures it’s a working meeting. Now within that context, they’re breaking bread, they’re spending a full day together, so that’s important.”
While there is no indication yet as to what Kim and Moon are likely to agree, Im said an announcement would be made after the summit and an agreement would be signed.
As Moon and Kim leave the banquet, they will watch a video projected on the side of the Peace House, portraying the past, present and future of the Korean Peninsula.
Rumors of peace treaty
The South Korean government has sought to make the event as open and transparent as possible, organizing a free live broadcast for South Koreans to watch on their phones or on giant TV screens in public places.
“They’re trying to create a moment. They’re trying to open a window of understand and dialogue and figure out how to solve problems,” Delury said.
Caught between advancing Soviet forces and the United States military, the two countries were first divided after the end of World War II.
Tensions between the freshly-split Koreas led to a bloody war beginning in 1950 and only ended with the signing of the armistice in 1953. However, no peace treaty was ever officially signed.
Over the next 60 years the two countries have had a rocky, tense relationship, worsening in the past five years amid Pyongyang’s concerted push to develop its missile and nuclear programs.
Kim took over as leader following his father’s death in 2011, extending the Kim family’s authoritarian rule that began with his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung.
For the estimated 2,000 local and international journalists attending the summit, one topic will draw more attention than any other — will North Korea agree to any form of denuclearization?
Threats of war loomed over the Peninsula towards the end of 2017, after Pyongyang announced it had developed the ability to strike the United States mainland.
Only a few months later, Kim has publicly promised to end North Korea’s nuclear program and said he is willing to join in talks on denuclearization “of the Korean Peninsula.”
Evans Revere, former State Department expert on North Korea, told CNN the most important outcome of Friday’s talks would be whether or not Pyongyang was serious about dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
“One of the critical priorities for the South Korean President I think is to try to get them on the record saying something more substantial and concrete in terms of denuclearization,” he said.
Many experts have pointed to broad misunderstandings in what “denuclearization” means for Pyongyang and the United States. Moon insists both countries are on the same page.
Revere said he was one of the “many skeptics” who were not holding their breath for many concessions by North Korea on their nuclear program.
“The North Korean language thus far has not been very specific … that suggests that they’re not being particularly serious about denuclearization,” he said.
CNN’s James Griffiths in Seoul contributed to this report.