By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee (Reuters)
Tens of thousands of North Koreans chanted “Unification!” and waved flowers as their leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in paraded through Pyongyang, ahead of a summit aimed at rekindling stalled nuclear diplomacy.
Kim greeted Moon with hugs and smiles as the South Korean leader arrived in the North’s capital to revive momentum in the faltering talks between Washington and Pyongyang over denuclearisation and the prospect of officially ending the Korean War.
A massive welcome ceremony at Pyongyang International Airport featured a large, goose-stepping honour guard and a military band.
Afterwards, the two leaders travelled in a black Mercedes limousine with open-top rear seats to the Paekhwawon State Guest House, where Moon will stay during his three-day visit.
Kim and Moon briefly stepped out of the vehicle to greet and take flowers from people in the crowds who waved flags and shouted “Motherland! Unification!”.
Clean streets and high-rise buildings were seen as the motorcade passed Ryomyong Street, a new residential district launched last year under Kim’s initiative to modernise the city.
Kim and Moon will hold formal talks from 3:30pm to 5pm (0630 to 0800 GMT), Moon’s office said.
The inter-Korean summit, the third between Moon and Kim, will be a litmus test for another meeting Kim has recently proposed to US President Donald Trump.
Trump has asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between himself and Kim, according to Moon’s aides, after Trump cancelled a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state last month.
Washington wants to see concrete action toward denuclearisation by North Korea before agreeing to a key goal of Pyongyang – declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.
“If North Korea-US dialogue is restarted after this visit, it would have much significance in itself,” Moon said before his departure.
Underscoring the challenges ahead, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun said “the responsibility falls squarely on the United States” for the stalled nuclear discussions.
“It is due to its nonsensical, irrational stubbornness that other issues can only be discussed after our country has completely verifiably, irreversibly dismantled our nuclear capabilities… without showing the intention to build trust including declaring the end of war,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
Moon, himself the offspring of a family displaced by the war, has met Kim twice this year at the border village of Panmunjom.
Traveling with him are South Korean business tycoons, including Samsung scion Jay Y. Lee and the chiefs of SK Group and LG Group. They will meet with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong Nam, who is in charge of economic affairs.
Tomorrow, Moon and Kim plan to hold a second round of officials talks after which they are expected to unveil a joint statement, and a separate military pact designed to defuse tensions and prevent armed clashes. Moon will return home early Thursday.
This week’s summit comes as the United States presses other countries to strictly observe UN sanctions aimed at choking off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
North Korea says it has destroyed its main nuclear and missile engine test site, and has halted atomic and ballistic missile tests but US officials and analysts believe it is continuing to work on its weapons plans covertly.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused Russia of “cheating” on UN sanctions on North Korea.
Moon is hoping to engineer a proposal that combines a framework for the North’s denuclearisation and a joint declaration ending the Korean War, Seoul officials said.
The conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving US-led UN forces including South Korea technically still at war with the North.
But US officials remain “unenthusiastic” about declaring an end to the war without any substantial action toward denuclearisation from the North, Seoul officials said.
South Korea is pinning high hopes on Kim’s remarks to Moon’s special envoys earlier this month that he wants to achieve denuclearisation within Trump’s first term in office ending in early 2021.
Agreeing on a timetable is a core task for Moon, as it would induce U.S. action, said Lee Jung-chul, a professor at Soongsil University in Seoul.
“Given US scepticism that South Korea may have oversold Kim’s willingness to denuclearise, how President Moon delivers his sincerity toward denuclearisation to Trump would be a key factor for the fate of their second summit,” Lee told a forum in Seoul.