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At groundbreaking summit, North and South Korea agree to denuclearize peninsula

A historic moment — even though plenty of questions remain.

PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27:  North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) cross back the military demarcation line to the south side after Moon crossing the border to north upon meeting for the Inter-Korean Summit April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) cross back the military demarcation line to the south side after Moon crossing the border to north upon meeting for the Inter-Korean Summit April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)

North and South Korea pledged to work towards the “common goal” of denuclearizing the peninsula and formally ending the decades-old Korean War, in a historic day of talks on Friday between the two countries.

Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea since the conflict in the 1950s, stepping across the demarcation line to meet his counterpart, Moon Jae-in. In a statement the pair agreed to push towards “denuclearization”, a formal peace treaty, and changing the heavily-fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries into a “peace zone”.

It’s a remarkable turn-around following months of escalating tensions between the pair, with North Korea test-firing ballistic missiles, Trump threatening to rain down “fire and fury”, and experts warning about the absolutely “catastrophic” consequences of war.

But the summit’s mood couldn’t have been more of a contrast. In reference to halting ballistic missile tests, Kim jokingly promised not to interrupt Moon’s morning sleep anymore. The pair also took part in a series of highly-symbolic and highly choreographed events including a traditional honor guard, a ceremonial tree planting, and Moon telling Kim he wanted to visit Mt. Paektu, a mountain in North Korea held sacred by the Korean people.

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In an apparently unscripted moment during the initial greeting, Moon briefly crossed over the demarcation line with Kim into North Korea, so the press corps could get photos of them shaking hands in North Korea as well.

While the meeting was highly rich on symbolism, experts have cast doubts over the sincerity of Kim’s desire to make peace. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, had previously met two South Korean presidents in official ceremonies — Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. In both cases the highly symbolic meetings focused on reconciliation between the two countries and aimed to prevent the North from developing its nuclear weapons program, which clearly didn’t work.

Another reason for Kim’s sudden desire for rapprochement may have to do with the reported partial collapse of North Korea’s main nuclear test site. On Thursday, it was reported that geologists at the University of Science and Technology in China had found that the stress of multiple explosions in Punggye-ri, in the country’s north-east, had rendered the test site unsafe and unusable.

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“You need to put emotion aside and wonder what this means on the question of nukes, which is not much,” Van Jackson, a former policy adviser to the US secretary of defense, told the Guardian. “Kim says he wants peace and denuclearisation, but what that means to him won’t be acceptable to South Korea or the US.”

Trump, meanwhile, addressed the summit with his trademark subtlety, tweeting “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” — seemingly giving himself, not Kim or Moon, credit for the summit. Trump has pledged to meet with Kim as early as May, although a date and location are yet to be decided.