SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Saturday in an effort to ensure a high-stakes summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump takes place successfully, South Korean officials said.
The meeting was the latest dramatic turn in a week of diplomatic flip-flops surrounding the prospects for an unprecedented summit between the United States and North Korea, and the strongest sign yet that the two Korean leaders are trying to keep the on-again off-again summit on track.
Their two-hour talks at the Panmunjom border village came a month after they held the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade at the same venue on April 27 and declared they would work toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
“The two leaders candidly exchanged views about making the North Korea-U.S. summit a successful one and about implementing the Panmunjom Declaration,” South Korea’s presidential spokesman said in a statement. He did not confirm how the meeting was arranged or which side asked for it.
The White House did not respond to Reuters queries about the meeting. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said an advance team of White House and U.S. State Department officials would leave for Singapore on schedule this weekend to prepare for a possible summit there.
Reuters reported earlier this week that a U.S. advance team was scheduled to discuss the agenda and logistics for the summit with North Korean officials.
Moon met Trump in Washington earlier this week, in a bid to keep the summit on track as initially planned for June 12 in Singapore.
Video and a photo released by the presidential Blue House on Saturday showed Kim hugging Moon and kissing him on the cheek three times as he saw Moon off after their meeting at Tongilgak, the North’s building in the truce village, which lies in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the 2.5-mile (4 km) wide buffer that runs along the heavily armed military border.
The previous summit was held at the southern side of the border.
They were accompanied by South Korean intelligence chief Suh Hoon and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong Chol, who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
Video footage also showed Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, greeting Moon as he arrived at Tongilgak and shaking hands, before the South Korean leader entered the building flanked by North Korean military guards.
Moon is the only South Korean leader to have met a North Korean leader twice, both times in the DMZ, a symbol of unending hostilities after the Korean War ended in a truce.
(For graphic on nuclear testing site, click tmsnrt.rs/2wGynpf)
(For graphic on nuclear North Korea, click tmsnrt.rs/2Kql12i)
TRUMP HAILS “PRODUCTIVE TALKS”
Trump said on Friday that Washington was having “productive talks” with Pyongyang about reinstating the June 12 meeting, just a day after he canceled it, citing North Korea’s “open hostility.”
“We are having very productive talks about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th, and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date,” Trump said on Twitter.
On Saturday, he tweeted that “there is ZERO disagreement within the Trump Administration as to how to deal with North Korea.”
Trump had earlier indicated the summit could be salvaged after welcoming a conciliatory statement from North Korea saying it remained open to talks. “It was a very nice statement they put out,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We’ll see what happens.”
“We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it,” he said.
After years of tension over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, Kim and Trump agreed this month to hold what would be the first meeting between a serving U.S. president and a North Korean leader. The plan followed months of war threats and insults between the leaders over North Korea’s development of missiles capable of reaching the United States.
Trump scrapped the meeting in a letter to Kim on Thursday after repeated threats by North Korea to pull out over what it saw as confrontational remarks by U.S. officials demanding unilateral disarmament.
In Pyongyang, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said North Korea’s criticisms had been a reaction to U.S. rhetoric and that current antagonism showed “the urgent necessity” for the summit.
He said North Korea regretted Trump’s decision to cancel and remained open to resolving issues “regardless of ways, at any time.” North Korea had appreciated Trump having made the bold decision to work toward a summit, he said.
North Korea also went ahead with a plan to destroy its only known nuclear site on Thursday, the most concrete action yet since pledging to cease all nuclear and long-range missile tests last month.
Dozens of international journalists left North Korea on Saturday after observing the demolition of the underground tunnels in Punggye-ri, where all of the North’s six nuclear tests were conducted.
Trump’s latest about-face sent officials scrambling in Washington. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Friday that diplomats were “still at work” and that the summit could be back on “if our diplomats can pull it off.”
Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Joori Roh in SEOUL, and Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali, David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Katanga Johnson in WASHINGTON; Editing by Helen Popper and Rosalba O’Brien