South Korea’s president and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un drove together through the streets of Pyongyang Tuesday past thousands of cheering citizens before opening a summit where Moon Jae-in will seek to reboot stalled denuclearisation talks between his hosts and the United States.
Kim and Moon embraced at Pyongyang’s international airport – where the North Korean leader had supervised missile launches last year as tensions mounted.
The North’s unique brand of choreographed mass adulation was on full display as hundreds of people waved North Korean flags and another depicting an undivided peninsula.
Thousands of residents, holding bouquets and chanting in unison “Reunification of the country!”, lined the streets as Kim and Moon rode through the city in an open-topped vehicle, passing the Kumsusan Palace.
The nuclear-armed North invaded its neighbour in 1950, starting the Korean War, and regularly stresses the importance of reunifying with the now far wealthier South.
Moon and Kim later began their formal talks.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the summit “will offer an important opportunity in further accelerating the development of inter-Korean relations that is making a new history”.
Moon is on a three-day trip, following in the footsteps of his predecessors Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and mentor Roh Moo-hyun in 2007.
The first visit by a South Korean president to Pyongyang in a decade is also the two leaders’ third meeting this year after previous summits in April and May in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.
Moon has been instrumental in brokering the diplomatic thaw that saw a historic summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore in June, where the North Korean leader backed the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
With Seoul and Washington moving at increasingly different speeds in their approaches to Pyongyang, Kim will look to secure more Southern-funded projects in the North.
For his part the dovish South Korean president is looking to tie the two tracks closer together to reduce the threat of a devastating conflict on the peninsula.
Moon will hold at least two rounds of talks with Kim and try to convince him to carry out substantive steps towards disarmament that he can present to Trump, whom he is due to meet later this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
“If this visit somehow leads to the resumption of the US-North Korea talks, it would be significant enough in itself,” Moon was quoted as saying before departure.
But analysts played down expectations.
The meeting “will probably generate rosy headlines but do little to accelerate efforts to denuclearise North Korea”, Eurasia Group said in a note.
Kim would push for enhanced North-South cooperation “especially in areas that promise economic benefits for the North”, it added.
“Progressives inside and outside Moon’s government will have strong incentives to inflate the summit’s accomplishments, initially obscuring what will likely be a lack of major deliverables.”
Moon was accompanied by business tycoons including Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong and the vice chairman of Hyundai Motor, and is scheduled to visit key sites in Pyongyang with his delegation.
Moon – whose poll ratings have been falling in the face of economic difficulties in the South – has been pushing inter-Korean cooperation but South Korean media have urged caution, calling for substantial progress towards denuclearisation.
“Quite a number of people are now fed up with the surprise events between the leaders,” the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday.
“President Moon must head to Pyongyang with the resolve that the first, second, third agenda of this summit is denuclearisation.”