SEOUL— Kim Jong Un will become the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the Korean War when he steps across the military demarcation line Friday and shakes hands with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president.
The outcome of their meeting is set to determine the future of relations on the Korean Peninsula and lay the groundwork for Mr. Kim’s planned summit with President Donald Trump, which could come within weeks.
In talks at the truce village of Panmunjom that will include a dinner banquet, the two Korean leaders will discuss improvements in relations, a possible peace agreement and, perhaps most critically, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. They are expected to release a joint statement.
Central questions are what North Korea might demand, and what concessions the South might offer, to sustain the conciliatory climate and further negotiations aimed at persuading the regime to relinquish its nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kim said last week that he was suspending nuclear and missile tests, but he hinted that he didn’t intend to abandon his nuclear deterrent.
During a news briefing Thursday, Im Jong-seok, Seoul’s presidential chief of staff, said the summit would be difficult and he couldn’t make promises about what agreements the leaders would reach on denuclearization.
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ICBMs have become highly sophisticated. This makes the current denuclearization discussions fundamentally different from the early 1990s and the early 2000s,” he said.
Since taking office last May, Mr. Moon has been pivotal in driving the thaw with Pyongyang, whose advances in weapons development had appeared to be drawing the U.S. closer to military action.
But as the North faced increasingly stringent sanctions in response to its weapons tests, Mr. Kim reached out to the South Koreans and, through them, to the U.S., opening up a rapprochement that accelerated around the Winter Olympics in February. He has indicated that rebuilding the North’s sanctions-battered economy is a priority.
Mr. Moon has said that greater economic cooperation between the Koreas could help build trust between the North and the outside world, and has suggested that the South could seek to sign a peace deal to formally end the Korean War.
In doing so, though, the South Korean leader risks moving more quickly to strike a deal than may be comfortable for the U.S. The Trump administration has insisted that it must see substantial progress on winding back the North’s nuclear program before making concessions, including the loosening of sanctions. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
The South Korean government has tried to keep expectations for the talks modest.
Humanitarian agreements, including the possible resumption of reunions of families separated by the Korean War, or inter-Korean athletic events, might be discussed. Pyongyang’s top sports official is among nine senior North Korean military and diplomatic officials set to attend. Mr. Im said he hoped Ri Sol Ju, the wife of Mr. Kim, would be there.
North Korea’s state media Thursday hailed the “hard-won atmosphere of improved North-South relations,” without referring specifically to the leaders’ summit.
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A major goal of the talks will be to smooth the way for a meeting between Messrs. Trump and Kim. The discussions aren’t expected to directly address some perennial irritants between the U.S. and North Korea, such as the 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Instead, one of the most dramatic gestures could be an agreement to establish a more permanent peace regime to replace the armistice that ended Korean War hostilities in 1953. Experts say a permanent treaty would require support from the U.S. and China, which were parties to the armistice.
Conservative critics of Mr. Moon’s outreach have warned that a peace treaty could bolster Pyongyang’s demands for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula.
Mr. Trump signaled this week that he wouldn’t be inclined to settle for a deal short of the dismantling of the North’s nuclear arsenal.
“It would be very easy for me to make a simple deal and claim victory,” he told a news briefing. “I don’t want to do that. I want them to get rid of their nukes.”
For months, Korea watchers in Washington have warned that Mr. Kim could be trying to pull Seoul closer to Pyongyang, and loosen the U.S.’s ties with the South. For instance, Mr. Kim’s pledge not to conduct more ICBM launches, a key issue for the U.S., led some conservative pundits to wonder whether the North would continue launching shorter-range missiles.
“What happens to an alliance when one ally declares peace and the other does not? For Moon, it is a delicate balancing act,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “North Korea has been allowed to split the talks into two separate tracks, and the allies have had difficulty coordinating a joint position.”
Mr. Moon said last week that Seoul had been communicating closely with Washington, and he thanked Mr. Trump for his “absolute support and encouragement.”
Friday’s meeting will be heavy on symbolism. The leaders will share a meal that includes ingredients nodding to their respective hometowns. They will conduct a tree-planting ceremony, using soil from the tallest mountains in the North and South and sprinkled with water from the rivers that run through Seoul and Pyongyang.