SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met for the second time in a month on Saturday, holding a surprise summit at a border truce village to discuss Kim’s potential meeting with President Donald Trump, Moon’s office said.
Kim and Moon met hours after South Korea expressed relief over revived talks for a summit between Trump and Kim following a whirlwind 24 hours that saw Trump cancel the highly anticipated meeting before saying it’s potentially back on.
Moon, who brokered the summit between Washington and Pyongyang, likely used Saturday’s meeting to confirm Kim’s willingness to enter nuclear negotiations with Trump and clarify what steps Kim has in mind in the process of denuclearization, said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
“While Washington and Pyongyang have expressed their hopes for a summit through published statements, Moon has to step up as the mediator because the surest way to set the meeting in stone would be an official confirmation of intent between heads of states,” Hong said.
Trump tweeted earlier Saturday that a summit with Kim, if it does happen, will likely take place on June 12 in Singapore as originally planned.
South Korean presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan said Moon will reveal details of his meeting with Kim on Sunday.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the rivals organized what appeared to be an emergency summit. Ahead of their first summit last month, Kim and Moon established a hotline that they said would enable direct communication between the leaders and would be valuable to defuse crises, but it was unclear whether it was used to set up the latest meeting.
Photos released by South Korea’s presidential office showed Moon arriving at the northern side of the Panmunjom truce village and shaking hands with Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, before sitting down with Kim for their summit.
Moon was accompanied by his spy chief, Suh Hoon, while Kim was joined by Kim Yong Chol, a former military intelligence chief who is now a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party’s central committee tasked with inter-Korean relations.
The two leaders embraced as Moon departed.
Moon’s office said that during their two-hour meeting, the two leaders also discussed carrying out the peace commitments they agreed to at their first summit, held at Panmunjom on April 27, but didn’t elaborate.
At their first summit, Kim and Moon announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and permanent peace, which Seoul has tried to sell as a meaningful breakthrough to set up the summit with Trump.
But relations between the rival Koreas chilled in recent weeks, with North Korea canceling a high-level meeting with Seoul over South Korea’s participation in regular military exercises with the United States and insisting that it will not return to talks unless its grievances are resolved.
South Korea was caught off guard by the abrupt cancellation of the summit by Trump, who cited hostility in recent North Korean comments. Moon said Trump’s decision left him “perplexed” and was “very regrettable.” He urged Washington and Pyongyang to resolve their differences through “more direct and closer dialogue between their leaders.”
Trump’s back-and-forth over his summit plans with Kim has exposed the fragility of Seoul as an intermediary. It fanned fears in South Korea that the country may lose its voice between a rival intent on driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul and an American president who thinks less of the traditional alliance with Seoul than his predecessors did.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the summit with Kim came just days after he hosted Moon in a White House meeting in which he openly cast doubts on the Singapore meeting but offered no support for continued inter-Korean progress, essentially ignoring the North’s recent attempts to coerce the South.
In a letter to Kim announcing the cancellation, Trump objected specifically to a statement from senior North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui. She referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” for his earlier comments on North Korea and said it was up to the Americans whether they would “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
North Korea issued an unusually restrained and diplomatic response to Trump, saying it’s still willing to sit for talks with the United States “at any time, (in) any format.”
“The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse,” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, which mainly targets an external audience.
Notably, the statement did not appear in Saturday’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, which is the official mouthpiece of the North’s ruling party and is widely read by North Koreans.
Analysts say Kim’s diplomatic outreach in recent months after a flurry of nuclear and missile tests in 2017 indicates he is eager for sanctions relief to build his economy and the international legitimacy the summit with Trump would provide. But there’s also skepticism whether Kim will ever agree to fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.
Comments in North Korea’s state media indicate Kim sees any meeting with Trump as an arms control negotiation between nuclear states, rather than a process to surrender his nukes. The North has said it will refuse to participate in talks where it would be unilaterally pressured to give up its nukes.
Moon used his hosting role for the Winter Olympics in February to renew the push to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang. North Korea sent hundreds of athletes, performers and dignitaries to the Pyeongchang Games, including Kim Yo Jong, who conveyed her brother’s desire for a summit with Moon.