SEOUL – Nothing will be left to chance when Kim Jong Un on Friday becomes the first North Korean leader to cross to the Military Demarcation Line that has divided this peninsula since the Korean War effectively ended in a stalemate in 1953.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government is pulling out all the stops to create the most conducive environment for an inter-Korean summit that, it hopes, will not only usher in a new era of engagement between the estranged neighbors but also pave the way for a fruitful meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The style and the substance of Friday’s summit have been painstakingly choreographed.
Soon after 10 a.m. Friday, the North Korean leader’s motorcade will pull up in front of Panmungak, the main building on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area.
The 34-year-old will then walk to the Military Demarcation Line, represented at this spot by a concrete curb, where Moon will be waiting for him. The moment the men meet and shake hands at that line will be broadcast live around the world — another first.
Then, inside to the newly renovated Peace House building, they will sit exactly 2,018 millimeters apart, “highlighting the historic 2018 inter-Korean summit,” the South Korean presidential Blue House said. They will sit across a table designed to look like two bridges merged into one.
There are three items on the agenda for Friday: denuclearization; creating a peace regime, and improving inter-Korean ties. The second and third items have already been negotiated and the results agreed to, according to local media reports.
But on denuclearization, the most difficult issue and the one of most interest to the United States, the discussion will be carried out by the two leaders directly, the right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unnamed Blue House official.
After their meeting, the leaders will have dinner in a specially constructed banquet room inside the Peace House. As with the furniture, every dish has meaning. They will even serve potato rosti, in a nod to Kim’s teenage years in Switzerland.
This is not the first inter-Korean summit, but it is the first that South Korea has hosted.
Kim Dae-jung, the patriarch of South Korea’s progressive movement, traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet then-leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, although the event was tarnished when it emerged the South had paid $500 million to secure the North’s participation.
Then, in 2007, Roh Moo-hyun followed suit, traveling to Pyongyang and meeting Kim Jong Il. At the time, Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and head of the summit preparation committee.
Now Moon will have a summit of his own.
“South Korean presidents have crossed into the North so the procedure will be the same, but this is a special occasion because it’s the first time a North Korean leader is crossing the DMZ,” said Han Yong-sup, a professor at South Korea’s National Defense University. “It’s historic.”
Analysts are wondering whether the South Korean military will form an honor guard to welcome Kim Jong Un as he crosses the line into South Korea, just as North Korean soldiers saluted Kim Dae-jung and Roh when they arrived in Pyongyang.
That kind of greeting — conveying legitimacy upon Kim Jong Un — would cause widespread heartburn in Washington and Tokyo.
Either way, the summit, held in a location that Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on Earth,” comes with special security situations — and ones that involve the U.S. military.
The South Korean side of the Joint Security Area is controlled by the United Nations Command because it was the United Nations — represented by the United States — that signed the 1953 armistice deal that brought the Korean War to a close. (South Korea refused to sign the armistice.)
That means that Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of both U.S. Forces Korea and the U.N. Command, is theoretically in charge of Kim’s security while he on the southern side of the line.
Kim will also be accompanied by bodyguards from the Guard Command, a branch of the Korean People’s Army, and the Pyongyang Defense Command.
There are some other — more personal — special arrangements that will be made for Kim.
“Rather than using a public restroom, the leader of North Korea has a personal toilet that follows him around when he travels,” said Lee Yun-keol, who worked in a North Korean Guard Command unit before coming to South Korea in 2005.
“The leader’s excretions contain information about his health status so they can’t be left behind,” Lee said.
Another consideration: Kim is a heavy smoker. Will he light up in the conference room? Or will the South Korean government create a special smoking place for him?
All of this information will be useful for the United States as it prepares for Trump’s own summit with Kim.
“Any time we have an opportunity to be in the same room or the same vicinity as Kim Jong Un and his entourage is definitely an intelligence gathering opportunity,” said Frank Aum, a former senior adviser for North Korea at the Pentagon, now at U.S. Institute of Peace.