North and South Korea’s leaders held surprise talks on Saturday to get a historic summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump back on track after a head-spinning series of twists and turns.
The meeting is the latest remarkable diplomatic chapter in a roller coaster of developments on the Korean peninsula.
Trump had rattled the region on Thursday by cancelling his meeting with Kim which had been due to take place in Singapore on June 12 citing “open hostility” from Pyongyang.
But within 24 hours he reversed course saying it could still go ahead after productive talks were held with North Korean officials.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Saturday in an effort to ensure the landmark meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader goes ahead.
“They exchanged views and discussed ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration and to ensure a successful US North Korea summit,” Seoul’s presidential Blue House said in a statement, adding Moon would make a personal statement on Sunday morning.
The leaders held talks for two hours in the same Panmunjom truce village where they had met last month, making a declaration vowing to improve ties.
Pictures showed them shaking hands and embracing on the North Korean side of the Demilitarised Zone separating the two nations.
– Remarkable detente –
Trump’s original decision to abandon the historic summit blindsided South Korea which had been brokering a remarkable detente between Washington and Pyongyang.
Last year Trump and Kim were threatening war after Pyongyang tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date and launched test missiles it said were capable of reaching the United States.
Tensions were calmed after Kim extended an olive branch to Seoul by offering to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, sparking a sudden detente that led to Trump agreeing to hold direct talks with Pyongyang.
Moon, a longtime advocate of engagement with the North, won election last year partly by vowing to be open to dialogue with Pyongyang and finding a solution to a Cold War-era sore that continues to blight the region.
But the flurry of diplomatic backslapping and bonhomie disappeared in recent weeks as the summit was thrown into doubt by increasingly bellicose rhetoric from both top US administration officials and Pyongyang.
Trump eventually pulled the plug on talks in a personal letter to Kim on Thursday.
But he left the door open to future meetings and Pyongyang responded by saying it was willing to sit down “at any time”, prompting Trump to reply that the Singapore summit could still take place.
Saturday’s meeting between Moon and Kim took place in a grand building on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, a heavily fortified village that lies between the two countries and marks the spot where the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 was signed.
Only last month the two leaders met in the same village, with Kim famously inviting Moon to step briefly into the North before they both held talks in a building on the South’s side.
Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on Korean relations at Dongguk University, said Saturday’s meeting between Moon and Kim increased the likelihood of the Singapore summit taking place as originally intended.
“Today’s summit is aimed at resolving the misunderstanding caused by communication glitches between Washington and Pyongyang and lay the groundwork for the US-North Korea summit,” he told AFP.
Adam Mount, a nuclear policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was a “bold but risky” move by Moon, describing the sudden summit as “a clear demonstration of how dangerous Trump’s temper tantrum was”.
Moon, he said, had little choice but to pursue any policy that avoids full-scale conflict.
“Trump says ‘everybody plays games’. Moon Jae-in is not playing a game: he must keep his people safe from war,” he wrote on Twitter.
– Utmost secrecy –
Unlike last month’s summit, which was held in front of live TV cameras, Saturday’s meeting was much more low-key, taking place in utmost secrecy, with reporters only being told later that the face to face had taken place.
Footage released by the Blue House on Twitter, accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score, showed Moon arriving in a convoy of cars and first shaking hands with Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who has played a major public role in recent talks with the South, including leading a delegation across the border during February’s Winter Olympics.
Saturday’s talks are only the fourth time serving leaders of the two Koreas, who remain technically at war, have ever met.